Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ladies: Happy Catherning, Nov. 25



 Welcome to your festival, ladies.
  
In the medieval world, Nov. 25, was another special day of celebration. It’s St. Catherine’s Day, for St. Catherine of Alexandria. And as the name suggests, it’s a feast day particularly dear to women.

St. Catherine was recognized as a patron saint by several groups such as lawyers and wheelwrights. But most prominently, she was “revered a women’s guide and guardian” (Cosman 87), especially of unmarried women, including female students.

Because of her association with women, St. Catherine Day (Catherning) could be considered a ‘woman’s day’ as St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas could be considered a man’s day. As Madeleine Pelner Cosman says, “Many Cathernings, therefore, are women’s feasts” (87). On that day, various kinds of celebrations were conducted featuring wheels or wheel-shaped objects.

One of the primary objects in these festivities was a Catherine Wheel. A wagon wheel, or something in that shape, was decorated with lighted candles at the ends of the spokes. In much later years, after the Guy Faulks uprising, fireworks might replace the candles when the wheels were outside. In medieval times, the lighted wheels could be hung above diners in the great hall.

Many other decorations and food items were in the shape of wheels as well. Catherine or Cattern Cakes were baked. Rich with sugar and caraway seeds, they have long been a delicacy associated with the celebration.

Why is everything in a wheel or spoke shape? The wheel commemorates the remarkable story of the death of St. Catherine.

Condemned by the Roman Emperor Maximinus (a truly despicable guy who killed, among others, his wife and 200 of his soldiers for converting to Christianity), Catherine (who converted them) was ordered put to death on a wheel. To the astonishment and consternation of onlookers, the wheel broke.

Many people viewed this as divine intervention, but officials were not to be deterred. Catherine was removed from the broken wheel and beheaded. Hers is one of the voices Joan of Arc was said to have heard.

Because she is such a symbol for unmarried women, sayings, songs, etc., developed over the years. So on her day, Nov. 25, one could often hear girls chanting:

“St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid
And grant that I never may die an old maid.”

Or perhaps:

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

SO, HAPPY CATHERNING!

Sources:
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Holidays and Festivals. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1981.

19 comments:

  1. Barb, when I was living in Britiain I was told St. Catherine's Day was like Sadie Hawkins Day or Feb. 29--women could ask someone to marry! Maybe it was a bit of leg-pulling & nowadays it doesn't seem to matter. Interesting post!

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    1. Fascinating, Andrea! Glad to hear it's still around :) Thanks for sharing that.

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  2. I loved this post. Growing up in England I saw Catherine wheels on Guy Faulks night but had no idea where the name came from.
    Thanks

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    1. Oh, my! How exciting to see another part of that festival still around. Thanks Marlow. I'll bet the wheel with the fireworks spinning around was something to see!

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  3. Like Marlow, I am familiar with Catherine wheels but had no idea their name was taken from a saint--and an interesting one indeed. Thanks for enlightenment!

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  4. I have always loved this story of St. Catherine. Thanks for reminding me, Barbara. :)

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    1. Thanks, Mary. I hadn't heard of her until now, when I looked into celebrations in November. I hate that she died such a death. Maximinus was really a despicable guy!

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  5. I've never heard of Catherine wheels before. Thanks for telling me about it, Barbara!

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    1. The feast days centered around saints are so interesting, especially when early Church observances mixed with the ancient, pagan traditions.

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  6. I think many young women are still chanting the same thing. Shared.

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    1. No Doubt, Ella. I especially like the "A husband St. Catherine...And soon St. Catherine." :D

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    1. Thank you for stopping by Alanna! Glad you like it.

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  8. Just love learning things like this! Happy St. Catherine's day!

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    1. Thanks, Red. If only I'd known about the tradition back when I needed it LOL.

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  9. A fantastic post, Barbara! Impeccable research, as usual. I've always been fascinated by the Catherine Wheel, and now I know what's behind it!

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    1. Thanks, Laura! It was a new one to me. I was happy to see a festival that centered around women! Well, she was the patron saint of several non-female professions and groups, to be fair. Still, it's the women's focus that the festival grows from, so we can take credit, right? :)

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  10. Such an interesting post, Barb. I like knowing the "good" purpose behind the Catherine Wheel, lol. Ancient feast days and celebrations offer wonderful inspiration.

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  11. Interesting story, Barb. I had a book of saints a while back and I remember that one.

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