St. Catherine's Day

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St. Catherine's Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: November 25
Where Celebrated: England, France
Symbols and Customs: Catherine Bonnet, Catherine Wheel, Cattern Cake, Lighthouse


St. Catherine is now believed to be a writer's invention rather than a historical person, and for this reason her feast day is no longer observed in the Roman Catholic Church calendar. Because sufficient evidence for Catherine's life has not been determined, her day was removed from the calendar of saints in 1969. But Catherine was one of the most admired and popular saints in western Europe during the latter Middle Ages, and some of the customs associated with her feast survive to this day.

According to legend, St. Catherine was born a pagan in Alexandria, but she loved books and learning so much that she eventually became interested in Christianity. Her family's high rank, if not her youth, might have protected her from being persecuted along with the other Alexandrian Christians, but she insisted on confronting Emperor Maxentius, scolding him for his cruelties and trying to persuade him that paganism was wrong. The emperor tried to seduce her but was rebuffed, and in anger he threw her into prison, where she managed to convert 200 soldiers of the guard. She was condemned to death by torture on a spiked wheel that would tear her flesh to pieces as it revolved. But the wheel broke and the spikes, flying off in all directions, ended up killing some of the spectators who had gathered to watch her die (see CATHERINE WHEEL ). She was finally beheaded with a sword in 310 C . E . Upon her death, her body is said to have been carried by angels to the top of Mount Sinai and buried on the site where a great monastery containing her shrine was later built.

The returning Crusaders spread St. Catherine's legend to western Europe at the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth centuries. Her cult quickly took root, and she was even more admired and popular in the West than she was in her original Eastern home. Her feast day, November 25, was observed with great solemnity until well into the nineteenth century, especially by spinners, lacemakers, carters, and ropemakers. She was also the patron saint of carpenters, wheelwrights, millers, and others whose work was in some way connected with wheels. In eighteenth-century England, young women in the textile industry engaged in merrymaking or "catherning" on this day, which they sometimes referred to as "Cathern Day."

The basis of saint day remembrances is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.


Catherine Bonnet

Because she died a virgin and refused to save her own life by sacrificing her virginity, St. Catherine is the patron saint of old maids and young, unmarried girls. She is still celebrated in France by unmarried women under the age of twenty-five, particularly those who work in the millinery and dressmaking industries. They wear "Catherine Bonnets"-homemade creations of paper and ribbon-on November 25 in her honor. If a young French woman reaches the age of 25 without being married or engaged, she is said to coiffer Sainte Catherine-to "do St. Catherine's hair" or "don St. Catherine's bonnet," which is a warning that she is likely to become a spinster.

Catherine Wheel

In England, the Catherine Wheel is a type of firework that revolves like a pinwheel as it burns and throws off sparks. Lighting Catherine Wheels is a popular activity there on GUY FAWKES DAY. In the United States, cheerleaders and aspiring gymnasts perform "cartwheels," repeating the motion of St. Catherine on her wheel of torture as they turn head-over-heels.

The wheel is both the symbol of St. Catherine's martyrdom and an ancient fire symbol, an image of the life-giving sun.

Cattern Cake

In England, St. Catherine's Day or Cattern Day was a holiday for lacemakers right up through the nineteenth century. Young girls who worked in the lacemaking trade would go from house to house, often dressed up in boys' clothing, to receive cattern cakes, known as "wiggs" because of their wig-like shape, and a special drink made from warm beer, beaten eggs, and rum. They sang traditional working songs as they made their rounds, and at night they feasted, played games, and lit fireworks, particularly CATHERINE WHEELS .

Cattern Day was also a holiday for spinners. They would exchange their normally drab attire for white dresses decorated with scarlet and other colored ribbons. One of them would be chosen as Queen, and she would lead a procession around the village, stopping at all of the wealthier homes to ask for gifts of food or money. "Catterning" soon became a synonym for going house to house, begging for food, drink, or money and singing traditional songs.


Many of the churches built in honor of St. Catherine were, like her grave, located on hilltops near the sea. From these high points of land, beacons frequently burned to guide travelers, especially sailors. Her chapel on a hill at Abbotsbury in Dorset, England, once had such a beacon, as did her chapel on St. Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight. It has been suggested that her association with lighthouses derived from her birth at Alexandria, where the most famous lighthouse of the ancient world was located. Today, St. Catherine's association with light and fire is seen primarily in the burning CATHERINE WHEEL .


Dunkling, Leslie. A Dictionary of Days. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hole, Christina. Saints in Folklore. New York: M. Barrows, 1965. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.


New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

St. Catherine's Day

November 25 (suppressed in 1969 in the Roman Catholic Church)
St. Catherine is now thought to have been a folkloric figure rather than a historical person; for that reason, her feast day is no longer observed in the Roman Catholic Church calendar. According to apocryphal writings, St. Catherine of Alexandria was sentenced to death by Emperor Maxentius for her extraordinary success in converting people to Christianity in the fourth century. He placed her in a torture machine that consisted of wheels armed with sharp spikes so that she would be torn to pieces as the wheels revolved. She was saved from this grim fate by divine intervention, but then the Emperor had her beheaded. The "Catherine Wheel" in England today is a type of firework that revolves in pinwheel fashion. In the United States, the "cartwheels" performed regularly by aspiring gymnasts repeat the motion of St. Catherine on the wheel of torture.
In 18th-century England, young women in the textile districts engaged in merry-making or "catherning" on this day, which is sometimes referred to as Cathern Day . As the patron saint of old maids, St. Catherine is still celebrated in France by unmarried women under 25, especially those employed in the millinery and dressmaking industries. They wear "Catherine bonnets" on November 25—homemade creations of paper and ribbon. The French expression coiffer Sainte Catherine (to don St. Catherine's bonnet), is used to warn girls that they are likely to become spinsters.
BkFest-1937, p. 128
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 295
DictDays-1988, pp. 19, 101
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 197, 1168
FestSaintDays-1915, pp. 213, 215
FestWestEur-1958, p. 48
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 662
OxYear-1999, p. 474

Celebrated in: Estonia

St. Catherine's Day (Estonia)
November 25
Estonian folklorists believe that the customs associated with Kadripäev, or St. Catherine's Day in Estonia, may date back to pre-Christian times. The holiday is strongly associated with women and their traditional activities, such as herding. People dress up in light-colored clothing, symbolizing winter's snow, and visit their neighbors, singing songs and offering blessings for the family's sheep and other herd animals. In return householders offer them cloth, wool, or food. An old superstition connected with the day forbade such activities as shearing and weaving, and sometimes knitting and sewing, as a means of protecting the sheep. Estonians associate Kadripäev with the arrival of winter.
Estonian Institute
Suur-Karja 14
P.O. Box 3469
Tallinn, 10506 Estonia
372-6-314-355; fax: 372-6-314-356

Celebrated in: Estonia

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
25 of each year, St. Catherine's Day is a traditional festivity for unmarried women to find matches.

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