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St Catherine's Day


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(25 November).

This (probably fictional) martyr, very popular in the Middle Ages, was said to have been broken on a wheel—hence the ‘Catherine wheel’ firework. She was patron saint of lace-makers, spinners, rope-makers, wheelwrights, carpenters, young women, and female students, and some of these had customs particular to her day, although some of them seem to have confused the Saint with Queen Catherine of Aragon. In Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, lace-makers and children attending lace-making school, took Catterns Day as a holiday. They called at neighbours' houses requesting refreshment, and some of them dressed up as men to do so. Cakes called wiggs (oblong-shaped and flavoured with caraway seeds) and ‘hot pot’ (warm beer containing beaten eggs and rum) were traditional fare on the day. In the evening, catherine wheels were ignited and a game of jumping the candlestick was played—if the candle went out as a woman jumped over it she would have bad luck for the coming year (compare a similar game under buckets). These customs had largely died out by the 1890s. A tradition which explains the connection between lace-making and St Catherine's Day relates that Queen Catherine of Aragon first taught the trade to English women and that once, when trade was very poor, she burnt her lace and ordered new to be made, encouraging other ladies at the court to follow suit (N&Q 3s:1 (1862), 387) (see also St Andrew).

In the mid-19th century, the rope-makers of Kent also celebrated the day in style. There they had torchlight processions on 25 November, with drums and fifes, and six men carrying a female wearing muslin and a gilt crown, to represent Queen Catherine (N&Q 2s:5 (1858), 47). In the earlier 19th century, the female children of the workhouse of Peter-borough also went in procession on this day, dressed in white, with coloured ribbons. The tallest girl represented the Queen and had a crown and sceptre, and they visited houses and sang:Here comes Queen Catherine, as fine as any queens any queen With a coach and six horses a-coming to be seenAnd a spinning we will go, will go,will go And a spinning we will go(Baker, 1854: ii. 436–7)

(Baker, 1854: ii. 436–7)

At Melton Abbey, Dorset, there is a St Catherine's Chapel where, according to a local tradition recorded in 1865, spinsters used to pray: ‘A husband, St Catherine; a handsome one, St Catherine; a rich one, St Catherine; a nice one, St Catherine; and soon, St Catherine!’. Another version of the alleged prayer ends: ‘But arn-a-one's better than narn-a-one, St Catherine!’ (The Family Herald (16 Sept. 1865), 319; quoted in Opie and Tatem, 1989: 336). Brand also gives detailed instructions for a love divination for St Catherine's Day, taken from a chapbook called Mother Bunch's Golden Fortune-Teller. For the visiting custom called ‘Catterning’, see souling.

Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 177–86;Brand, 1849: i. 410–14.


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