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Historical French Tradition: Les Catherinettes

Les Catherinettes

Did you know that since the 10th century, the 25th November has been dedicated to celebrating the life of the St. Catherine of Alexandria? Legend has it that this saint, martyred as a young girl in the 4th century AD, was the daughter of a governor of Egyptian Alexandria, who, after having seen a vision of the Madonna and Child, decided to convert to Christianity. Her beliefs were challenged by the emperor Maximian and a troop of the best philosophers of the time, but Catherine managed to convince them of the validity of her religious faith, even persuading several of her opponents to convert.

Catherine was subsequently imprisoned, and visited by many people, who all decided to become Christians, and who were therefore all martyred. When the emperor’s son, Maxentius failed to force her to renounce her religion through torture, he decided that the only way to repress her faith was to ask for her hand in marriage. However, Catherine refused, claiming that she was married to Jesus Christ and would always remain a virgin. Maxentius therefore ordered her execution on a spiked breaking wheel, but when it came into contact with her body, it shattered. It is this tale which is at the origin of the well known term ‘Catherine wheel’.

In the Middle Ages, St. Catherine’s importance as a religious figure grew, as she was often exalted as an example of chastity, which young girls were encouraged to follow. Later, in France, she was adopted as the patron saint of unmarried girls, who began to pray to her for help in their search for a husband. It is said that before they reached the age of 25, they would pray:

Donnez-moi, Seigneur, un mari de bon lieu! Qu’il soit doux, opulent, libéral et agréable
(‘Lord, grant me a well-situated husband! Let him be sweet, affluent, kind-hearted and agreeable’)

and that, after this age, the prayer would change to:

Seigneur, un qui soit supportable, ou qui, parmi le monde, au moins puisse passer!
(‘Lord, one who’s bearable, or who can pass as bearable to rest of the world!’)

In France, on the 25th November, unmarried women, referred to as ‘catherinettes’, would often be given strange hats and headdresses to wear for the whole day, which would use the colours green (symbolising wisdom) and yellow (symbolising faith). In this way, as well as hoping that they would eventually get married, women would celebrate those amongst them who had reached the age of 25 without a husband.

In the France of today, where it is very common to be happily unmarried at the age of 25, this tradition, which jars with feminist sensibilities of modern society, is on the wane. However, there are still some places, such as Vesoul, in eastern France, where every year, la Fête de Sainte Catherine is still celebrated with a parade. So if you see a group of women wearing a strange green and yellow hat on November 25th, don’t be alarmed, just know that they are proud to be catherinettes! 

les catherinettes