St. Catherine’s Day Customs

A la Sainte-Catherine, tout bois prend racine.’ On St. Catherine’s Day (25th November) all wood takes root. This oft-quoted saying implies that the climatic conditions are right for planting trees and shrubs on that day. I’ll return to this below. Various other customs are associated with this saint in France.

Legend of St. Catherine

Legend has it that Catherine was born of noble parentage in Alexandria around 290 AD and died in 307 AD. She was of remarkable intelligence and converted to Christianity. Catherine tried to convert the Roman Emperor Maxentius when he visited Alexandria. Furious, he set her the task of debating with 50 philosophers. She managed to convert them, so Maxentius had them all executed.

The emperor then proposed to marry Catherine but she refused, declaring that she was already married to Jesus in some sort of mystic ceremony. The humiliated Maxentius ordered her to be tortured on a spiked wheel (the origins of the Catherine wheel firework) but it fell apart, so he had her beheaded.

 The use of the spiked wheel as an instrument of torture and execution persisted for centuries. This was the favourite capital punishment meted out to the leaders of the Croquants’ revolt in the Rouergue during the 17th century. 

Les Catherinettes

The foremost tradition dates from the Middle Ages. Young unmarried women aged 25 or more – known as Catherinettes – celebrated St. Catherine’s Day by renewing the headdress (coiffe) on her statue in church and decking it with flowers and ribbons. The headdress would remain until the following year. The expression ‘elle va coiffer sainte Catherine’ referred to a woman who had not yet found a husband.

Les Catherinettes went to the traditional St. Catherine’s Day ball hoping to find a suitable spouse. Some wore extraordinary hats, on which yellow and green predominated. These confections denoted their availability on the marriage market.

Continuing recognition

The cult of St. Catherine spread only after the Crusades. The many paintings of her include notable later ones by Raphael and Caravaggio and often depict Catherine with her wheel. Joan of Arc claimed that Catherine was one of the voices that communicated with her.

But there is doubt about whether Catherine ever existed. The body of a young woman was found on Mount Sinai in around 800 but it’s far from clear that it was hers – nor how it got there. Below is a representation of her on a 17th-century icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai.

Consequently, the Roman Catholic Church removed her from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 but reinstated her in 2002, designating her saint’s day as an ‘Optional Memorial’.

St. Catherine remains the patron saint of unmarried girls but also of philosophers, notaires (lawyers), milliners and millers. Why millers appear in the list is not clear, except that it might have some connection with the mill wheel of a water mill.

A number of towns in France held important agricultural fairs on 25th November. I couldn’t find any that still exist in this area. However, at Sévérac-le-Château in Aveyron this weekend [post written in 2013] they are reviving a big fair (formerly a horse fair), complete with bal and parade of Catherinettes in hats. Anyone aged from 5 to 55 can take part: not quite in keeping with the original ethos.

Gardening significance

And now to ‘tout bois prend racine’. Rather than planting everything indiscriminately, several gardening websites say the period November to February is favourable for taking and rooting tree and shrub cuttings. The leaves and the sap have fallen and the soil is damp but not yet frozen (depending on where you live, of course).

I don’t know why this is associated specifically with St. Catherine’s Day, except that racine rhymes nicely with Catherine. If anyone knows the origins of this, please leave a comment below.

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

You might also like

French Superstitions

French Christmas Traditions

French Country Novels


  1. Me again… yesterday was our foire de Sainte Catherine so we were there slurping oysters and moules frites, comme d’hab. A french friend who grew up in the area says the foire was huge in his youth and spread into all the alleys and streets of the bastide. The Bretenoux church is dedicated to Sainte Catherine so maybe that’s why the fair has persisted. Sadly the restaurant that served the traditional ‘piot’ has gone. A meal with turkey as the main course but we found it quite dry the only time we tried it.
    I shan’t be able to enjoy Catherine wheel fireworks after reading about the link to her torture! Gruesome…
    But thank you for your timely article

    Liked by 1 person

    • This one is from the archives and gets wheeled out every 25th November! Your foire sounds fun. Moules frites for me. I’ve tried oysters, but I can’t like them. Not squeamishness, simply not my thing.
      Yes, the origin of the Catherine wheel firework is a bit off-putting. I don’t quite know how the connection was made between the two, except that breaking convicts and rebels on the wheel was a popular punishment in times past. Also grisly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fascinating post! It also connects bits of my past. My brother studied at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge. Decades ago, we visited Santa Caterina Monastery (that’s what we always called it) on a jeep tour of Sinai.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your own connections are interesting, thank you for sharing, Miriam. I looked up the monastery again. Apparently, St Catherine’s holy relics are enshrined there. Also, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery.


  3. We are in the UK visiting family before Christmas so will miss the St Catherine fair in Bretenoux, chief town of our canton until recently. A few cattle change hands and stand about mournfully in the place de la poste next to the rugby club stand doing a roaring trade in oysters and moules frites. It seems to be over run by stalls selling socks and saucepans but we can be guaranteed to bump into loads of friends and acquaintances. The detour of the town has to come through our village as we have the nearest bridge over the cere! :).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember your telling me about that fair on a previous occasion. I’m sure that in times past it was an important fair in the annual calendar. Our own village had an important cattle market a couple of times a month, not necessarily on St C’s day, but that disappeared in the 1960s. Have a good time in the UK. It’s going to turn cold here next week.


  4. Found this link on twitter. Today is the foire de st catherine in bretenoux. It has been held in this bastide town since about 1250. (Details were published in a piece about the fair in our local paper). We refer to it as the socks and saucepans fair as on our first visit those stalls dominated. It kicks off with a cattle auction and the whole main street is taken over by various stalls. Our favourite is the rugby club one. They sell oysters and moules frites and eating there has become our st cath. tradition along with buying tickets for the telethon activities which take place next weekend. Happily, today has dawned clear and sunny. on y va!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I published this post a year or so ago but thought it worth reviving on Twitter. I tried to find a fair locally but there doesn’t seem to be one anymore. They might have had one at Villefranche-de-Rouergue, but I can’t find any details. Yours sounds fun. Have a good time. Bit chilly in the wind but at least it’s dry.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m pleased you found it interesting. I didn’t know about all the customs associated with her until I did some digging about. I also didn’t know about the Catherine wheel – how it became a firework is beyond me!


I'd love to know your thoughts. Please leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.