Recently I went to lunch with some expat friends, one of whom has a French boyfriend.
“I found out something strange” she informed us. We sat forward all agog, we love to hear about the differences in cultures that those with a foot on both sides of the fence have.
“My boyfriend sent a card to his niece” she paused for effect “and it wasn’t for her birthday… it was for ‘Old Maid’s Day’ ”. She said she asked him what it was all about and he told her that it is customary in France to send a card on 25 November to unmarried women in honour of St Catherine.
I have to say for a secular country France doesn’t half have a lot of religious holidays, events and celebrations. Anyway, it seems that in the old days, unmarried women would, on St Catherine’s Day, pray for a husband, wear special hats and call themselves Catherinettes.
Apparently it all goes back to a story originating in the 4th Century that a young girl was killed by the Emperor Maxentius when she rejected his amorous advances. He is said to have placed her in a torture machine which had revolving wheels that would tear the unfortunate maiden to shreds. According to legend, she was saved by divine intervention when the wheel fell apart though she was later beheaded for converting people to Christianity. The Catherine Wheel revolving firework is allegedly named after her.
Over time she became the patron saint of unmarried women and of those employed in the textile and hat making industries. Women who were not married would wear brightly coloured hats with lots of ribbons and bits and pieces called “Catherine Bonnets” and cards would be sent to them.
To this day there’s an expression in France “Coiffer Saint Catherine” which means you’ll be left on the shelf, never be married, become a spinster, you will, literally translated, wear St Catherine’s Bonnet…