Gansabhauet — Knock the Goose
Different cantons celebrate St. Martin’s Day in very different ways. Citizens in the town of Sursee in canton Luzern partake in the “Gansabhauet,” which loosely translates to severing the neck of a lifeless goose with a saber stroke. At this unique custom, celebrated each year on St. Martin’s Day on November 11, participants take turns trying to cut down a dead goose that is hung in front of the town hall with a saber. In a tradition that resembles a medieval version of a piñata at a children’s birthday party, young men and women dressed in a red cloak, blindfolded under a mask in the shape of a sun, and armed with a dull Dragoons’ saber, each get one swing at the goose in the hopes of cutting it down. As only one attempt per person is permitted, the spectators have ample opportunities to busy themselves with other games and competitions, before the goose is finally brought down and the winner applauded. The victor in this feat—which in 2019 was for the first time a woman—will not only win fame and glory, but also a delicious feast as the winner’s prize has always been, and is still today, permission to take the dead goose home.
There are also numerous activities and contests for kids to entertain them between watching the contestants, such as scaling up a stripped pine tree (Stangechlädere), sack races (Sackgompe), or competing to see who can make the ugliest face (Chäszänne) to earn themselves a piece of cheese. The children’s games have been part of the festivities since 1880, but the actual Gansabhauet has been around for many more centuries.
The Gansabhauet is a whole-day event. People who want to participate and take a swing at the dead goose with the saber must register until 11:00 on the day (041-926-9000). At 14:30, they will draw the order of the participants in front of the Zunftstube next to the Diebenturm; participants must be present. The city council, members of the organizing “Zunft Heini von Uri” guild, and invited guests will lead everyone to the fairgrounds accompanied by drumbeats starting at 15:00. At 15:15, the Gansabhauet will begin in front of the Rathaus (town hall), with participants taking turns swinging at the goose, while children can participate in their activities (tokens for the games can be acquired at the stand in front of the town hall). And since 1997, this day steeped in tradition comes to a close in the very special atmosphere—the children can join in a “Räbeliechtli” (turnip lantern) parade through the darkened streets of the old town, starting at 17:15 at the Untertor. The parade ends around 17:50 at the St. Martin old-age home, where the children will be served tea, Wienerli (small sausages), and bread.
Sursee is about an hour from Basel by car or train; note that the whole old town of Sursee will be closed to traffic from 13:00 onwards, so it is best to take public transport.