Saint Catherine’s Day – 25th November – is celebrated in France with a sense of fun. Saint Catherine is the patron saint of unmarried women, lacemakers, milliners, drapers and craftspeople (particularly those using wheels like potters). To honour Saint Catherine it was traditional for dressmakers to create fancy decorative hats and give them to single female friends or work mates to wear for the day. The purpose being to wish them good luck in finding a husband! It has become the day for milliners to show off their hats and hat making skills – often the St Catherine’s day hats are fabulously outrageous. Today it is still celebrated in just a few of the haute couture fashion houses, where staff make fancy hats in green and yellow colours for their young workmates.
In Paris you’ll find a statue of Saint Catherine on the corner of rue de Clery and and rue Poissonniere in the Sentier district. Years ago you might have seen the Catherinettes wearing their hats out in the street making their way to the statue to “pray to Saint Catherine for help in finding a husband.”
Strictly speaking, a Catherinette is a young woman 25 years of age or more who has not yet married. Along with wearing pretty hats it was also customary for these young single women to send postcards of Saint Catherine to each other too. These lovely vintage cards can sometimes be found in the street markets with Vive Ste Catherine atop a pretty bonneted mademoiselle. In other countries it was traditional to make and eat Cattern cakes.
In case you are thinking this is hardly in keeping with modern day feminism and the rightful pursuit of gender equality, it’s worth knowing a little more about Saint Catherine. According to legend Saint Catherine of Alexandria was a brilliant young woman of noble birth who went before Emperor Maximus to correct him for worshipping false gods and scolded him for his persecution of Christians. She called him out! He sent scholars and philosophers to argue with her, instead she convinced them of her faith and they converted to Christianity (and were subsequently executed). She might have saved her own life by allowing the Emperor to marry her, but she declined, and died a virgin martyr. Catherine’s punishment was death by torture on a spiked wheel, but the wheel flew apart, so instead she was beheaded. This is where the name of Catherine Wheel fireworks comes from.
So, on Saint Catherine’s day, wear a hat, have some fun and enjoy the legend of a young woman who stood on her principles.