The end of summer came early in old-time printing shops. By the third week in August candles were needed to light the final hours of the long working day. To mark this shift to winter working, it was usual for the master printer to give his journeymen a feast around St Bartholomew’s Day (24 August). This was the wayzgoose or way-goose.
Its earliest recorded use is this:
The Master Printer gives them a Way-goose; that is, he makes them a good Feast, and not only entertains them at his own House, but besides, gives them Money to spend at the Ale-house or Tavern at Night. ... These Way-gooses, are always kept about Bartholomew-tide. And till the Master-Printer have given this Way-goose, the Journey-men do not use to Work by Candle Light.
Mechanick Exercises, by Joseph Moxon, 1683.
A rather splendid ditty the following century retold the story behind the practice in rhyming couplets:
The season comes to light the tapers up,
To gild the night, and drink the festive cup;
Now darkness treads upon the heels of day,
And earlier now dispatches him away. ...
We sacrific’d the goose, and mirth pursu’d;
As that delicious bird about this time,
Call’d for the knife, and was in season prime. ...
The masters hence their journeymen invite,
To dine abroad, or spend the merry night.
Lloyd’s Evening Post, 1750, quoted in Notes and Queries, 4 August 1866.
The name is baffling. In 1731, lexicographer Nathaniel Bailey argued, in the fifth edition of his Universal Etymological English Dictionary, that it came from wayz, meaning stubble, respelling the word wayzgoose to make the supposed derivation clearer. Though it continued to be spelled as way-goose by almost everybody except Bailey, nineteenth-century etymologists stuck the “z” in to make it fit Bailey’s story. A minor edifice of conjecture was built on his suggestion, which asserted that a goose fattened on harvest stubble was served as the crowning dish at the feast. A goose might indeed have been served, as the 1750 poem suggests, but there’s no known connection between the name and the fowl.
The term evolved to mean the annual summer dinner or outing held for the printers in a publishing house or newspaper office. Once the old connection with wintertime working by candlelight had been lost through advances in lighting methods and reductions in working hours, the event was often held in July instead.
It’s not a term that appears much in literature, though a satirical poem by Roy Campbell entitled The Wayzgoose was published in 1928 and a figurative example is known from a little earlier:
Carriages were chartered, an enormous quantity of eatables and drinkables provided, and away we went, a regular wayzgoose or bean-feast party.
The Cruise of the Cachalot, by Frank T Bullen, 1897.
It seemed at one point that with changes in printing technology and practice the term would die out, but events under this name are still held, sometimes as a deliberate reintroduction. It also turns up from time to time as a gently whimsical term for some anthology or book-related festivity.