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Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Cattern Cakes and Catherine Wheels - The Customs and Traditions of St Catherine's Day

St. Catherine
Today the 25th November is the feast day of St. Catherine. Similar to St. Martin's Day on November 10, St. Catherine’s Day also marks the arrival of winter.

St. Catherine’s Chapel at Abbotsbury was once a popular place of pilgrimage for girls seeking their truelove. Many would visit the chapel on St Catherine’s Day, where, inside the south doorway, there are three ‘Wishing Holes’. The girls would put their knee in the lower hole and their hands in the other two above and wish for the man of their dreams, saying as follows:

‘A husband, St Catherine
A handsome one, St Catherine
A rich one, St Catherine
A nice one, St Catherine
And soon, St Catherine’
St. Catherine's Chapel, Abbotsbury
Wishing or praying to St Catherine for a husband was also a popular custom at Cerne Abbas,where there was once a ruined St Catherine’s Chapel on Cat-and-Chapel Hill. With the chapel now gone the custom has since switched to St Augustine’s Well, where there is a ‘Wishing Stone’ upon which is the wheel of St Catherine.

It was the custom for any single girl wanting a husband to go alone to St Augustine’s Well at dawn on either, May Day, Midsummer Day, or St Catherine's Day. She would kneel down and place her hands on ‘The Wishing Stone’ and say the following rhyme:
‘St Catherine, St Catherine
O lend me thine aid
And grant that I never
May die an Old Maid
A husband St Catherine
A good one St Catherine
But ar-a-one better than
Nar-a-one, St Catherine’
In order to consecrate the wish, the girl would then have to drink and immerse herself in the water to purify her mind and body.

In honor of the Saint "Cattern Cakes" are eaten today. Also known as 'Catherine Cakes' (after Catherine of Aragon, whom whilst imprisoned locally at Ampthill, heard of the lacemaker's financial plight, and destroyed all of her lace only to commission some more and give work to the local industry). They are specially prepared for St. Catherine's Day - the patroness of lace makers, rope makers, prostitutes, servants, unmarried girls, wet-nurses, female students, and any profession to do with the wheel, such as; spinsters, wheelwrights, potters and millers - on the 25th November, which is the lacemaker's special day.

Below, Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days November 24th 1864, details the traditions of St. Catherine's day.
ST. CATHARINE

Among the earlier saints of the Romish calendar, St. Catharine holds an exalted position, both from rank and intellectual abilities. She is said to have been of royal birth, and was one of the most distinguished ladies of Alexandria, in the beginning of the fourth century. From a child she was noted for her acquirements in learning and philosophy, and while still very young, she became a convert to the Christian faith. During the persecution instituted by the Emperor Maximinus I, St. Catharine, assuming the office of an advocate of Christianity, displayed such cogency of argument and powers of eloquence, as thoroughly silenced her pagan adversaries. Maximinus, troubled with this success, assembled together the most learned philosophers in Alexandria to confute the saint; but they were both vanquished in debate, and converted to a belief in the Christian doctrines. The enraged tyrant thereupon commanded them to be put to death by burning, but for St. Catharine he reserved a more cruel punishment. She was placed in a machine, composed of four wheels, connected together and armed with sharp spikes, so that as they revolved the victim might be torn to pieces. A miracle prevented the completion of this project. When the executioners were binding Catharine to the wheels, a flash of lightning descended from the skies, severed the cords with which she was tied, and shattered the engine to pieces, causing the death both of the executioners and numbers of the bystanders.

Maximinus, however, still bent on her destruction, ordered her to be carried beyond the walls of the city, where she was first scourged and then beheaded. The legend proceeds to say, that after her death her body was carried by angels over the Red Sea to the summit of Mount Sinai. The celebrated convent of St. Catharine, situated in a valley on the slope of that mountain, and founded by the Emperor Justinian, in the sixth century, contains in its church a marble sarcophagus, in which the relics of St. Catharine are deposited. Of these the skeleton of the hand, covered with rings and jewels, is exhibited to pilgrims and visitors.

St. Catherine's Wheel
A well known concomitant of St. Catharine, is the wheel on which she was attempted to be tortured, and which figures in all pictured representations of the saint. From this circumstance are derived the well kown circular window in ecclesiastical architecture, termed a Catharine wheel window, and also a firework of a similar form. This St. Catharine must not be confounded with the equally celebrated St. Catharine of Siena, who lived in the fourteenth century.

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