25 November : St. Catherine of Alexandria

A husband, St. Catherine! - A handsome one, St. Catherine! - A rich one, St. Catherine! - A nice one, St. Catherine! - And soon - St. Catherine!

(Traditional saying)

St Catherine is the patron of single women, students, philosophers, craftsmen who use wheels, lace makers and milliners. So St. Catherine's Day is the traditional day for an unmarried woman to pray for a husband. In France it was a day for women to celebrate the unmarried state – a sort of Mother’s Day for non-mothers. Unmarried women over twenty five were referred to as ‘Catherinettes’ which is also the French term for a milliner.

Catherinettes would send cards to each other and their friends made hats for them, traditionally in yellow and green for faith and wisdom. The Catherinette is supposed to wear the hat all day. If there is a statue of St Catherine handy, single women are supposed to make a special pilgrimage to ask the Saint for help in finding a husband lest they are forced to ‘wear St. Catherine's bonnet’ for the rest of their lives.

I wonder if the association with millinery was because it was a genteel occupation for an unmarried girl? My husband's Great Great Grandmother, Catherine Howard, was a straw bonnet maker in Thame in Oxfordshire. I think she was genteel.....I hope so!

There’s an old pathe newsreel of St Catherine’s Day in Paris here http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=5542

The French say that before a girl reaches twenty five, 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 twenty five, she prays: ‘Seigneur, un qui soit supportable, ou qui, parmi le monde, au moins puisse passer’ 'Lord, one who's bearable, or who can at least pass as bearable in the world’
And when she's nearly thirty: ‘Un tel qu'il te plaira Seigneur, je m'en contente’ 'Send whoever you want, Lord; I'll take him!’

Catherine was the daughter of Costus, Governor of Alexandria in the fourth century. She was famously clever and she told her father she would only marry someone who surpassed her in beauty, intelligence and wealth. She found such a person in Jesus ‘His beauty was more radiant than the shining of the sun, His wisdom governed all creation, His riches were spread throughout all the world’

I'm sure St Catherine realised that for a woman the religious life was the only way of avoiding the traditional role of wife and mother and for having the opportunity for some sort of intellectual life - think of Hildegarde of Bingen. Nuns lived a lot longer than married women - and even these days have a longer life expectancy than the norm. Speaking of growing older; 'turning St Catherine's corner' - is a euphemism for the menopause - I wonder where that came from?

As is well known, St Catherine was martyred for her Christian beliefs, but not on a wheel – she shattered the wheel with a touch, so she was eventually beheaded. We don’t have exact dates for her but interestingly there was another famous scholarly woman martyred in Alexandria at about the same time – Hypatia. Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob dragging her through the streets in AD 415. How ironic is that..

Cattern cakes are the traditional thing today. They are supposed to have originated in sixteenth century Nottingham when the lace makers celebrated their patron Saint. There are a number of versions, this is the one I used.

Cattern Cakes

Oven 200c
10oz (300g) flour
4oz (100g) melted butter
2tsp caraway seeds
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 large egg
8oz (225g) caster sugar
2 oz (50g) ground almonds
1 rounded tsp instant dried yeast
Extra sugar, cinnamon & caraway seeds for the top

Sift the flour and cinnamon into a bowl and stir in the almonds, caraway seeds and sugar and the dried yeast.
Add the melted butter and beaten egg. Mix well and knead until smooth.
Roll the dough out onto a floured board to the size of a swiss roll tin.
Brush dough with milk or more melted butter and sprinkle with the extra sugar, seeds and cinnamon.
Roll up like a Swiss roll and cut with a sharp knife into ¾" slices.
Place these slices spaced well apart, on a greased tray and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour. Then bake for 20 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack.

Apologies and It's not really happened before on the blog - but actually I thought these were truly horrible. Solid and tasting strongly of caraway, they reinforced all my childhood prejudices against seed cake. I'd omit the caraway if I made them again - a bit like Hugh F-W who when he made garlic slugs, after he ate them said just leave out the slugs.

'And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.'

From 'Spinster' by Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)


manu said...

Oh I didn't know! thanks for this info!

Gerry Snape said...

I'm sharing this with my hat maker friend...though she's not single , but I know that she will like the story. Thankyou.

Choclette said...

So much there on St Catherine and the only thing I knew proves not to be true - hey ho! The yeasted cakes sounded so good (apart from the caraway I have to admit), but your verdict of "heavy" has rather put me off.

kate said...

Oh I like this one - I didn't know most of this and it's all so interesting. I was looking for a saint so I can celebrate my saints day here like everyone else - there are a few Catherine's to choose from but I think I'll have her! So next year there will be a party on November 25th. love Kate (Catherine) X