St. Catherine’s Feast Day Around the World
The calendar of saints is a tradition of the Christian church. Each day of the year is associated with one or more saints who are celebrated with local traditions and spiritual “feasts”. This tradition arose from the Christian custom of commemorating saints on the day of their martyrdom, or their birth into heaven, known as dies natalis ('day of birth') in Latin.
The feast day of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of the Sinai monastery, is on November 25 and has been popular for many centuries.
She is considered the patron saint of unmarried girls, craftspeople who work with wheels, such as potters and spinners, and intellectuals including philosophers, students, and even librarians, lawyers and archivists. Come along as we explore the ways Saint Catherine is honored by believers all over the globe.
Saint Catherine is the namesake for this ancient monastery tucked away in the mountains of the Sinai peninsula. Naturally, the monastery hosts a large religious celebration to honor the saint and hosts pilgrims from far and wide.
Father Justin describes the feast day in 2017:
“This year, many pilgrims came for the feast of Saint Catherine, from Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and Russia.
Early morning with all the lamps lit, as pilgrims begin to fill the church.
Bishop Theodoros of Babylon represented the Patriarch of Alexandria, while Archbishop Theophylaktos of Jordan represented the Patriarch of Jerusalem. One hierodeacon and twelve priests concelebrated with them for the Divine Liturgy. Archbishop Damianos was present, but remained at the choir.
Beams of sunlight shine on newly polished lamps.
Sunlight illuminates the menologion icon showing the saints for the first days of June.
At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, we carry the relics of Saint Catherine in a procession around the church, saying prayers for the members of the community and the pilgrims who have come for the feast, and commemorating those fathers of Sinai who have gone to their rest.”
During the Tudor period, Catterntide became a popular holiday which marked the start of the advent season. The celebration honored St. Catherine who was considered the patron saint of spinners, weavers, and textile makers.
Catterntide was primarily associated with lace makers who baked Cattern cakes to mark the occasion. The swirl-shaped cakes are made with cinnamon and caraway seeds, and named after Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.
Follow the recipe below to try making a cattern cake yourself.
Another tradition you can still find in the UK is a Catherine Wheel, a popular type of firework. It’s built in a spiral shape with a pin at the center so when the fireworks are lit, the wheel self-propels, spinning quickly and producing a fantastic display of sparks and coloured flame.
This wheel references the back-breaking spiked wheel on which Saint Catherine was sentenced to death by Emperor Maximian for defending the Christian faith. However, when Catherine was brought out to be executed, she touched the wheel and it miraculously broke apart.
In Malta, the feast of Saint Catherine is celebrated in the first week of September and lasts the entire week.
Many of the traditions take place outside in public, particularly in the Żurrieq, where there is a church named for the saint. The festivities include band marches, decorations, fireworks displays, and the impressive statue of Saint Catherine is paraded along the streets. There is also a special mass which honors clergy, seminarians, members of all religious orders, and, especially, those named Catherine. As in the UK, Catherine Wheels are popular. In fact, in 2011, a fireworks company broke the world record for creating the largest Catherine Wheel which measured 32 meters in diameter.
Kadripäev, or Saint Catherine’s Day, is a popular celebration in Estonia which marks the start of winter. It is considered the female version of Saint Martin’s Day, Mardipäev, which is held earlier in the month on November 10th.
These holidays are associated with agriculture, livestock, and the end of harvest season. During both saints’ days, people dress in costumes and masks, and go door to door performing, singing, telling riddles, and collecting gifts or sweets; similar to Halloween trick ‘r treating. During Saint Catherine’s Day, both genders dress as women. Catherine, or Kadri (a popular name in Estonia), is also the protector of livestock and the holiday is meant to bring luck and safety to cattle and sheep during the winter.
Celebrations of Saint Catherine’s day in France emphasize the saints’ role as the patron of unmarried women. Unmarried women over the age of 25 were known as Catherinettes.
Each year, these women would create a decorative cap with ribbons and flowers for the statue. In fact, the French idiom elle va coiffer sainte Catherine or “she who is capping Saint Catherine”, is used to refer to women who turn 25 and are still unmarried. The single women attended special balls held on November 25th donning colorful, extravagant hats which marked their availability. As society changed, these traditions have died out over time, but Saint Catherine’s Day is still associated with unmarried women and hatmaking.
French Canadians have a unique tradition of taffy making on Saint Catherine’s feast day.
It is said to have originated with Marguerite Bourgeoys, a French nun who came to Quebec in the 1600’s and provided some of the first public schooling in what is today Montreal. The taffy was a way of attracting young students to attend school. The celebration in Canada retained some of the French customs including hatmaking, community gatherings, and the participation of unmarried women. In addition, towns held taffy pulls on Saint Catherine’s day and young women would attempt to garner the attention of eligible men by offering them candy.