‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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