25 November 2011

25 November - Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Weather: As at Catherine foul or fair, so will be next Februare.

“The birthday of St. Catharine, virgin and martyr, under the emperor Maximinus.  For the confession of the Christian faith, she was cast into prison at Alexandria, and afterwards endured a long scourging with whips garnished with metal, and finally ended her martyrdom by decapitation.  Her body was miraculously conveyed by angels to Mount Sinai, where pious veneration is paid to it by a great concourse of Christians.”

Today is the feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, usually recognized in the pantheon of Virgin Saints by the appearance of a spiked wheel near her. 

Her story, a highly embellished version of which you can read in The Golden Legend, was of a young Christian noblewoman, well-educated, who upbraided the emperor for his persecution of Christians and debated with the pagan philosophers sent to persuade her by learned arguments to apostatize; instead, her arguments converted them. After being beaten and imprisoned, she was condemned to be tortured to death between wheels spiked with nails and knives, which would tear her flesh as they turned.  Instead, the wheel to which she was bound broke into pieces, putting an end to that.  This so enraged the emperor that he had her scourged and beheaded, and thus she achieved the crown of martyrdom. 

Catholic Online adds: "Maxentius' blind fury against St. Catherine is symbolic of the anger of the world in the face of truth and justice.  When we live a life of truth and justice, we can expect the forces of evil to oppose us.  Our perseverance in good, however, will be everlasting."
One of the favorite medieval and renaissance depictions of St. Catherine concerned her 'Mystic Marriage' to Our Lord.  As the story goes, she was the daughter of the king of Egypt, who died when she was fourteen.  She succeeded him to the throne, and her subjects urged her to marry.  She answered them, saying that her husband must have four gifts: he must be so nobly born that all would worship him; he must be so great that he would not be indebted to her for being made a king; he must be so beautiful that the angels should desire to see him; and he must be so benign as to forgive all offenses.  And her subjects despaired because they knew of no such man.

However, Our Lady appeared to a hermit and told him to take the pictures of her and her Son to Catherine, telling her that the Spouse she sought was Jesus.  Catherine gazed upon the picture of Our Lord and fell in love, desiring no one else.  In a dream, she was borne into His presence, but He turned from her, saying that she was not fair enough.  When she awoke, she went immediately to the hermit, asking how she could make herself worthy; the hermit instructed and baptized her.  That night, Mary appeared in a vision, and presented Catherine to Jesus, who gave her a betrothal ring.  And from that time, she despised all worldly things.
As a virgin saint, she is the patron of never-married women:

  • unmarried girls
  • maidens
  • spinsters
  • old maids

From the spiked wheel of her martyrdom, she is the patron of those who work with wheels in some form:

  • mechanics and wheelwrights
  • millers
  • potters
  • spinners
  • turners
  • knife grinders and sharpeners

For her reputed wisdom and education, she is the patron of collectors and disseminators of knowledge:

  • archivists, libraries and librarians
  • educators and teachers
  • scholars, schoolchildren, and students
  • scribes, secretaries, and stenographers

For her debating skill and persuasive language, she is invoked by those who need such skills in their work:

  • apologists and philosophers
  • attorneys, barristers, jurists, and lawyers
  • preachers and theologians  

As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, she was invoked against tongue diseases and sudden death.  

Sour ol’ Naogeorgus crabbed:
St. Cathern favors learned men, and gives them wisdom high,
And teacheth to resolve the doubts, and always giveth aid
Unto the scolding sophister, to make his reason staid.
What should I tell what sophisters on Cathern’s day devise?
Or else the superstitious joyes that maisters exercise.

It is her patronage of unmarried women that gave rise to the traditions associated with today; this is a day not only to hopefully dream of a future husband, but also to ask for one:
"A husband, Saint Catherine,
A handsome one, Saint Catherine,
A rich one, Saint Catherine,
A nice one, Saint Catherine,
AND SOON, Saint Catherine!"

(I've always like this prayer.  There is a hint of impatience in the final request.)

The one who would like to dream of her future husband should place a piece of wedding cake under her pillow, and her wish is sure to be gratified... providing that the piece of wedding cake has previously been passed through a wedding ring. [Now explain to your mother why there are crumbs and a smoosh of icing under your pillow]

This is a little more involved: Three to seven young women, no more or less, must assemble in a room where they are safe from interruption.  As the clock strikes 11 pm [2300 for military types], each must take from her bosom a sprig of myrtle, which has been worn there all day, and fold it up in a bit of tissue-paper.  They must then light up a small chafing dish of charcoal, and on the lighted coals each must place nine hairs from her head and a paring of each of her finger and toe-nails. [Since time is of the essence here, you might want to have all of this ready beforehand]  Each young woman must sprinkle a small quantity of myrtle and frankincense in the charcoal [which will hopefully rid the air of the odor of burning hair and nails], and while the odoriferous vapor rises, fumigate the tissue-wrapped packets of myrtle in it.  Then go to bed while the clock is striking the hour of midnight, placing the myrtle exactly under the head.

The instructions assure us that each young woman will be sure to dream of her future husband; HOWEVER, once again, the whole hour's performance must be passed in perfect silence.  Good luck with that.

From Observations of the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: 
 "A writer in 1730 observes, "St. Catharine is esteemed in the church of Rome as the saint and patroness of the spinsters; and her holiday is observed, not in Popish countries only, but even in many places in this nation; young women meeting on the 25th of November and making merry together, which they call Catharning."    "Camden, in his 'Ancient and Modern Manners of the Irish' says, "Formerly women and girls in Ireland kept a fast every Wednesday and Saturday throughout the year, and some of them also on Saint Catharine's Day; nor would they have omitted it, though it happened on their birth-day, or they were ever so ill.   The reason assigned for this custom was, that the girls could get good husbands, and the women better ones, by the death or desertion of their living spouses, or at least by an improvement of their manners." "

Spinster (unmarried woman) comes from spinster (spinners, an occupation that kept women – young and old – busy).  From one definition of spinster to the next is a short leap, especially with the aid of the wheel motif, and St. Catherine became the patron of those who employed the spinning wheel and reel. In the days of the workhouse, spinning was the task of the young girls, and St. Catherine’s Day was one of their few celebrations.  They would go, decked with gaily-colored ribbons, with the workhouse master in procession around the city; the tallest girl, crowned and carrying a scepter, was the Queen.  The group would stop at the principal houses and sing, while begging for money from the inhabitants:

Here comes Queen Catharine, as fine as any queen,
With a coach and six horses a-coming to be seen:
And a-spinning we will go, will go, will go,
And a-spinning we will go. 

Some say she is alive, and some say she is dead,
And now she does appear with a crown upon her head.
And a-spinning, etc. 

All you that want employment, though spinning is but small,
Come list, and don’t stand still, but go and work for all.
And a-spinning, etc.

If we set a-spinning, we will either work or play,
But if we set a-spinning, we can earn a crown a day.
And a-spinning, etc.

And if there be some young men, as I suppose there’s some,
We’ll hardly let them stand alone upon the cold stone.
And a-spinning, etc.

Then it was back to the workhouse, where newly-bought spinning wheels and reels awaited, although any young men hearing the last verse might take that as an invitation to pay the young women a visit, and accompanied them accordingly.

Spinners make thread – thread is used to make lace.  The lace-makers also considered St. Catherine as their patroness and celebrated her day –“Cattern Day” – with cakes and ale.  At some point, Saint Catherine was merged with “Queen Catherine” – Katherine of Aragon or Katherine Parr, depending on locality – and stories of the goodness of one or the other of the queens purported to account for the celebrations.

Workhouse girls were not the only ones to go about singing and begging for good things today.  Children started the day by “Catterning”, which, like the “Clemmening” two days previous on St. Clement’s Day, resembled the exact same begging at the beginning of the month on All Soul’s Day.  Instead of singing:

“A soul cake! A soul cake!
Pray you, good mistress, for a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him that made us all…” etc.

Today’s processions resounded with variations of the following:

Cattern' and Clemen' be here, here, here,
Give us your apples and give us your beer;
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him who made us all.
Clemen’ was a good man,
Cattern’ was his mother:
Give us your best,
And not your worst,
And God will give your soul good rest.”

With the charitable proceeds of their endeavors, the children managed to have a small feast in celebration.  This, of course, was kiboshed by Henry VIII, who possibly felt (like our own politicos) that any extra money should be given to the government – who would then dole it out to those deemed worthy of its largesse – rather than to a ragtag group of children out for fun.  Therefore, ol’ faithful hound Cranmer wrote: “…the Kyng’s majestie therefore, myndinge nothing so moche as to advance the true glorie of God without vaine superstition, willith and commaundeth that from henceforth all suche superstitious observations be loste and clyerlye exstinguished…”

(Modern governments substitute: “…minding nothing so much as to advance the true glory of the Constitution without the interference of vain Christianity…” but the effect is the same.)

Whereas the men (at least the blacksmiths) feasted well on Saint Clement's Day, two days previous, today it is a feast of women.  What a splendid time for a Girls Night Out! 

If you can find the wheel-shaped pasta, use it in tonight's dinner.  Pick your own favorite pasta recipe.

Saint Catherine Cakes from northern France were made in the shape of a heart, and given to women over the age of twenty-five to encourage them to find a husband [I don’t think they needed much encouragement; hopefully the good taste of cakes mitigated the pity and the exasperation of their families.]  If you have heart-shaped cake pans, today would be a good time to use them.

You might try making "Saint Catherine's Wigs"  (and another recipe here) or Cattern Cakes, which, from their description, sound a lot like cinnamon rolls, with the addition of caraway seeds.  So either use one of the recipes online (you will need to convert the measurements, as they all seem to be based in England), or get yourself a can of whoppin' cinnamon rolls, press a few caraway seeds into the dough before baking, and make life easy on yourself.  We spend so much time being torn and broken on the wheels of our own making; perhaps today is a good day to sit back and let the wheel turn on its own without us. 

And remember:
Saint Catherine’s night! You may believe
Tomorrow month is Christmas Eve.

['tomorrow month' being a short way of saying "a month from tomorrow"]

Soon the evergreen Laurel alone is seen,
When Catherine crowns all learned men.
Then Ivy and Holly Berries are seen,
And Yule log and Wassail come round again.