According to tradition, Catherine of Alexandria was a Christian saint and virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the emperor Maxentius. According to her hagiography, she was both a princess and a noted scholar who became a Christian around the age of 14, converted hundreds of people to Christianity and was martyred around the age of 18. More than 1,100 years after Catherine’s martyrdom, Joan of Arc identified her as one of the saints who appeared to and counselled her.
The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but, at her touch, it shattered. Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded. Catherine herself ordered the execution to commence. A milk-like substance rather than blood flowed from her neck.
Catherine was one of the most important saints in the religious culture of the late Middle Ages and arguably considered the most important of the virgin martyrs, a group including Agnes of Rome, Margaret of Antioch, Barbara, Lucia of Syracuse, Valerie of Limoges and many others.
Her principal symbol is the spiked wheel, which has become known as the Catherine wheel, and her feast day is celebrated on 25 November by most Christian churches. However the Russian, Polish, Serbian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches celebrate it on 24 November. The exact origin of this tradition is not known. In 11th-century Kyivan-Rus, the feast day was celebrated on 25 November. Now, in Ukraine it celebrates on 7th December (according the Gregorian calendar).
During the medieval period, Saint Catherine’s Day marked the beginning of Advent in England.
Catterntide was celebrated by lacemakers. A traditional celebration of St Catherine’s Day, which has seen something of a revival in modern times, is the baking of ‘Cattern Cakes’ in honour of St Catherine. The rise of the internet has assisted in this process, as recipes have become more readily available. The key ingredients are bread dough, egg, sugar, lard or butter, and Caraway seeds.
The custom of lighting a revolving pyrotechnic display (a ‘Catherine Wheel firework’) to celebrate the saint’s feast day is assisted by the ready supply of such fireworks during the month of November, due to the secular celebration of Guy Fawkes Night earlier in the month.
St. Catherine’s taffy is a candy made by French Canadian girls to honor St. Catherine, the patron saint of unmarried women on her feast day. St. Catherine’s Day is sometimes known in among French-Canadians as “taffy day,” a day when marriage-age girls would make taffy for eligible boys. Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, a founder of the Notre-Dame de Montréal and an early teacher in Ville-Marie, the colonial settlement that would later become Montreal, is credited with starting the tradition as a way of keeping the attention of her young pupils by placing the taffy on the path in front of her school leading to the door way.
In Estonia, five parish churches and at least as many chapels have been dedicated to St. Catherine. St. Catherine’s Day (Estonian: kadripäev) is still widely celebrated in modern-day Estonia. It marks the arrival of winter and is one of the more important and popular autumn days in the Estonian folk calendar. It is a day of celebration for the women of the culture. The customs for the Estonian St. Catherine’s Day are generally associated with the kadrisants (kadri beggars) or kadris, which give the whole day a unique quality, although it is similar to the traditions practised on St. Martin’s Day. Both require dressing up and going from door to door on the eve of the holiday to collect gifts, such as food, cloth and wool, in return for suitable songs and blessings.
As with mardi eve (the evening before St. Martin’s Day), when the village youth chose a mardiisa (father), the main player on kadri eve is kadriema (mother).
On Estonian farms, minding the herds and flocks were primarily the responsibility of women and therefore, St. Catherine’s Day involves customs pertaining more to herd keeping than farming. In addition, both men and women may dress up as women. In comparison to the mardisants, who were generally dressed in a masculine and rough manner and often wore animal masks, the kadris wear clean and light-coloured clothing, which is in reference to the coming snow.
Regarding the songs for St. Martin’s Day and St. Catherine’s Day, the main content difference is that the former songs wished the visited families harvest luck and the latter songs luck with the herds and flocks, particularly with the sheep. Sheep shearing was not allowed from Martinmas to St. Catherine’s Day, because then the sheep would not mature.
On St. Catherine’s Day, in order to protect the sheep, shearing and weaving were forbidden and sewing and knitting were also occasionally banned.
St. Catherine’s Day has retained its popularity throughout the centuries, including the half-century of Soviet occupation, during which no direct official obstructions to the celebrations were made, probably due to the apolitical nature of the holiday. Thus, St. Catherine’s Day is still widely celebrated in modern-day Estonia. It is particularly popular among students and the rural population.
On St Catherine’s Day, it is customary for unmarried women to pray for husbands, and to honour women who have reached 25 years of age but have not married—called “Catherinettes” in France. Catherinettes send postcards to each other, and friends of the Catherinettes make hats for them—traditionally using the colours yellow (faith) and green (wisdom), often outrageous—and crown them for the day. Pilgrimage is made to St Catherine’s statue, and she is asked to intercede in finding husbands for the unmarried lest they “don St. Catherine’s bonnet” and become spinsters. The Catherinettes are supposed to wear the hat all day long, and they are usually feted with a meal among friends. Because of this hat-wearing custom, French milliners have big parades to show off their wares on this day.
The French say that before a girl reaches 25, she prays:
“”Donnez-moi, Seigneur, un mari de bon lieu! Qu’il soit doux, opulent, libéral et agréable!“
(Lord, give me a well-situated husband. Let him be gentle, rich, generous, and pleasant!”)
After 25, she prays:
“”Seigneur, un qui soit supportable, ou qui, parmi le monde, au moins puisse passer!“
(Lord, one who is bearable, or who can at least pass as bearable in the world!”)
And when she is approaching 30:
“Un tel qu’il te plaira Seigneur, je m’en contente!“
(“Send whoever you want, Lord; I’ll be happy!”).
An English version goes, St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid, And grant that I never may die an old maid.
The ‘Catherinettes’ were ladies in their 20s who had not managed to hook themselves a husband by the 25th November, Feast of Saint Catherine, patron saint of young unmarried women.
In 19th century France, many single young ladies worked as hat makers. They would make hats for each other using traditional colours of yellow for faith and green for wisdom.
The hats would be as outrageous as possible, worn all day, for all to see and wish them a speedy end to their single lives!
Before reaching 25, a girl would pray for a ‘mari de bon lieu!’ (a well-situated husband).
After 25, she would pray for a husband who was ‘supportable, ou qui, parmi le monde, au moins puisse passer!’ (bearable, or who can at least pass as bearable).
Approaching 30, she would pray for ‘un tel qu’il te plaira Seigneur, je m’en contente!’ (Send anyone Lord; I’ll take it!).
‘Capping Saint Catherine’ (coiffer Sainte Catherine) became synonymous with still being still single after 25.
Parades of ladies wearing striking and outlandish hats can still be seen around on 25th November.
And there is this, a fervent French prayer:
Saint Catherine, be good
We have no more hope
but in you
You are our protector
Have pity on us
We implore you on our knees
Help us to get married
For pity's sake, give us a husband
For we're burning with love
Deign to hear the prayer
Which comes from our overburdened hearts
Oh you who are our mother
Give us a husband
In keeping with its French heritage, New Orleans has inaugurated a hat parade to celebrate the patron saint of milliners, seamstresses and single women. Inspired by the annual event of the same name in Paris, it is held the weekend before Thanksgiving.
The great martyr Catherine was also considered by the people to be the patroness of women, brides and pregnant women. On this day, believers turn to the saint with requests for family well-being, mutual love and children’s health, and when praying at the image of the martyr, be sure to light three candles so that the family is not interrupted.
The most important tradition on Catherine’s Day is divination of the convict. To do this, they took a crust of bread and put it under a pillow so that the beloved appeared in a dream. Another way to attract the groom is to leave a pot of porridge on the porch. You can also put a sprig of cherry in the water and wait for Christmas: if it blooms, it promises a marriage soon.
As the holiday on December 7 falls during the Christmas fast, only lean food (lean borsch, porridge and rye bread) should be served on the table.
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Categories: Ethnic traditions