Perhaps the strangest of Swiss traditions, the Gansabhauet involves masked and blindfolded participants trying to win a dead goose by severing its neck with a blunt sword.
The tradition happens on St Martin's Day, 11 November, in the town of Sursee, Lucerne. Historically, similar contests were held throughout Europe with varied fowl, a valuable prize. Participation in such a contest was also thought to be an incentive to encourage farmers to come to the city to pay their taxes.
Today the competition for the goose doesn't seem to have changed much, and it is complemented with numerous events for children. This year I was able to visit the event with my mother in law.
The day is carried out as follows:
In the morning, eager hopefuls sign up at the city hall for a chance to later wield a sword. The order of participants is determined by lottery.
At three in the afternoon, officiants (in black and yellow robes) and musicians (in red and white robes) parade into the main square, carrying two dead geese. The first bird is suspended from a wire that runs across the stage. Then the officiant holds up a pole with a number on it, the person with the matching number will be the first participant.
To prepare, the participants are dressed in a red robe, blindfolded and masked, and given a glass of wine. With two drummers leading the way, they are led to the stage, spun around, and handed their sword. Carefully, they wander the stage until they finally locate the goose.
From here it gets technical.
They take some moments to feel for the weak part of the neck. Then they do a practice stroke. Then they check the neck again, maybe plucking out some feathers. Then they do another couple of practice strokes. This goes on until the crowd starts to jeer (well, not jeer so much as sigh audibly—this is Switzerland after all). Then they take their big swing, and if they're lucky, they decapitate the goose. On the day, the first goose took thirteen hits and the second took only four.
However, this is not the only event of the day, there is also the Stängechlädere. A few meters away from the main stage there is a large pole with presents hanging from the top. Using a similar lottery system, children attempt to climb up and snatch a present. Many fail, but a lucky few make it to the top and get a wrapped present, a box from the bakery, or in the case of one unlucky little boy, a calculator.
For the children who aren't participating in the pole climb, there is the Chäszänne. While the next sword-bearer is being readied, the children rush to the side of the stage and make funny faces at the officiants. They are rewarded with pieces of cheese.
Another activity is the sack race and sausage competition. Cervelats are suspended with string from a wire and the children hop across the stage in burlap sacks and try to eat the hanging sausages.
Once the competitions have ended, there is the Räbeliechtli Umzug, a procession through the town with lanterns carved from turnips.