Dear Readers, the sixth day of Christmas harks back to a time when it was a goose that would provide the centrepiece of the feast rather than a turkey. However, turkeys have been the bird of choice for rather longer than I expected – it’s said that Henry VIII was the first English monarch to eat turkey rather than goose, and they were apparently a popular choice in households from as early as 1573. However, goose was the bird of the day up until the Victorian era, and we can possibly blame Charles Dickens and ‘A Christmas Carol’ for finally sealing the fate of the goose as the bird du jour on Christmas Day – after all, it’s ‘the largest turkey in the shop’ that Scrooge provides for Bob Crachitt and family. You’d think the goose would breathe a sigh of relief, but there are still goose farms around the country. Close to Mum and Dad in Dorset there was a farm where we see all the fluffy goslings arrive in the spring and watch them mature until the beginning of December, when the pond would be eerily empty except for a few feathers.
Geese have a reputation for being ferocious, and I can vouch for the way that the Canada Geese on Wanstead Flats used to terrorise me when I was a toddler. There I’d be, lovingly throwing crumbs to the adorable ducks, when a group of satanic black, honking, waddling birds would heave themselves menacingly out of the water and advance towards me, hissing. If I offered them a piece of bread they’d nearly take my fingers off – although those beaks look leathery they are full of sharp serrations, as they need to be for tearing up grass. Many a time I ended up flat on my backside in a slippery mess of goose poo and London clay, and it took me a while to grow to admire them for their pugnaciousness. After all, these are big birds who need a lot of food. Once I was taller than they were they lost some of their ability to terrorise.
However, one should never underestimate a goose. I once visited a City Farm in London with my then-boyfriend, who was 6 foot 8 inches tall. We no sooner came through the gate than a domestic goose started to advance towards us, fixing us with a steely stare and hissing. The goose had a condition called ‘angel wings’ which you might have seen in domestic fowl.
This is thought to be caused by poor diet in the early part of a bird’s life, especially lack of Vitamin E, though there might be a genetic component too. At any rate, this deformity had not improved the mood of the goose, and he had clearly been comfort-eating, as he looked like a white feathery basketball. One of the workers looked at the goose, looked at us, and said:
“Goosey doesn’t like tall people.”
Just as the words were uttered, the goose launched himself towards us with a speed surprising for such a stout animal. My boyfriend, heroically, turned and ran. I stood gawping as the goose raced past me, realised he wasn’t going to catch my boyfriend, did a handbrake turn and headed back towards me. Clearly, being 5 foot 11 inches tall was quite tall enough.
The goose went for my shins with the accuracy of a practised assailant. Suffice it to say that by the time I’d prised the bird off my leg I was bleeding and had the bruises for weeks. I also acquired a new boyfriend as soon as I was recovered enough to walk around and find one (there was no internet in those days so you couldn’t just order one up).
So I suppose the moral of the story is to never underestimate a goose. The sacred geese of Juno did, after all, save the Republic of Rome from the Gallic hordes back in 390 BC by cackling and hissing when the invaders tried to break into the city. Maybe the invaders were all tall people.
But geese also have their exalted moments. I remember watching them when I was working in Dundee, great skeins of them against a troubled, murky sky, and I remember how the people hurrying home from work would turn to look at them, and sometimes give a great, shuddering sigh, as if the sight had jolted them out of their heads and into the here and now. Here, as a special treat, is Mary Oliver reading her poem ‘Wild Geese’. I hope you enjoy it.
Can you put a name to these fine geese? Just match the name to the photo.
a) Pink-footed goose
b) Brent goose
c) Bar-headed goose
d) Greylag goose
e) Barnacle goose
f) Greater white-fronted goose
For a bonus point – which of these geese has been spotted from a plane while flying over the Himalayas?