According to traditional narratives, Saint Catherine was the daughter of the Governor of Alexandria during the reign of the Roman Emperor Maximian. When she was just a young child, she had a vision in which the Virgin Mary and a young Jesus convinced her of the truth of Christianity and convinced her to convert from her pagan ways. She soon after converted and when the Maxentius persecutions began, she visited the Emperor's camp and publicly rebuked him for the cruelty happening on his orders against her fellow Christians. The historian Rufinus states her first name was Δωροθέα (Dorothea) but at her christening chose the name Αικατερίνα (Aikaterina) from the Greek αιέν καθαρινά meaning ever clean. The name continued in etymology to be associated with the Coptic name meaning "my consecration of your name" and καθαρός (katharos) meaning pure.
The Emperor gathered together fifty philosophers and orators in an attempt to disprove Christianity and refute her claims of the one true God. Despite going in debate against learned and successful debaters, Saint Catherine won her debate - many of the fifty that had come converted to Christianity but were immediately sentenced to death. In a state of fury, the Emperor had her immediately arrested and tortured. Several legends attest to the extreme amounts of punishments inflicted upon her, including scourging until her entire body was covered with wounds.
When the torture did not kill her, the Emperor ordered that she be placed into a prison cell without food or water in the hope starvation would kill her. She told visitors that each knight angels would come and visit her in the prison cell, tending to her wounds and that Christ himself appeared to her, telling her to be brave and that a crown awaited her in heaven. Over 200 different people came to visit her in the cell as word grew of the miraculous girl - including the Emperor's wife, Valeria Maximilla (who converted, and in some versions of the story was likewise martyred for her conversion).
As it became clear that torture would not kill the young woman, the Emperor changed tactics. When guards opened the door to release her, they stated she looked more beautiful than ever and had a pleasing smell of fragrance from the room. The Emperor's new tactic was to propose marriage for her to a nobleman. She refused, stating that she had consecrated her virginity to Christ and was married to his church. The Emperor, now overcome with anger, sentenced her execution to be done on a breaking wheel (a person's limbs are threaded among spokes and their bones shattered by an executioner with a heavy rod). When she touched the wheel it instantly and miraculously shattered.
The Emperor had her beheaded publicly, and instead of blood flowing from her neck it was recorded that a white milky substance instead flowed. One legend holds that Angels took her remains to Mount Sinai - The Emperor Justinian had a monastery built there in her name that remains today (Saint Catherine's Monastery).
Saint Catherine was extremely popular in the medieval world and Eastern churches and she was counted among the most important of the Virgin martyrs. In the year 800, monks at Mount Sinai attested that her hair was still growing on her remains and that healing oils flowed forth. A phial of this oil was kept at Canterbury and had been brought back from Mount Sinai by Edward the Confessor. Several other pilgrimage sites sprung up throughout Europe including Saint Catherine's Hill, Westminster and others. Saint Catharine's College was founded on Saint Catherine's day by Robert Woodlark when he wished to found a small community of scholars to study theology. Saint Catherine became an exemplar for young women in medieval times. One of the very first Roman Catholic churches built in Russia was the Church of Saint Catherine - named after Saint Catherine because she was the Empress Catherine the Great's patron Saint.
Until the 1500s, the feast day had largely been kept on November 24th. The Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra writes in his Synaxarion:
"Until the 16th century, the memory of St Catherine was observed on 24 Nov. According to a note by Bartholomew of Koutloumousiou inserted in the Menaion, the Fathers of Sinai transferred the date to 25 Nov. in order that the feast might be kept with greater solemnity."
Many dioceses of France celebrated the day as a Holy Day of Obligation and a tradition took root there for unwed women. At the age of 25, unwed women decorate bonnets on the feast day. These women are called Catherinettes in France and the hats use the traditional yellow and green colors (Faith and Wisdom respectively) - the more outrageous the design of the hat the better. Pilgrimage is made to Saint Catherine's statue and she is invoked to intercede for them to find husbands lest they become spinsters. This lad led to a saying:
Before 25 and unwed:
""Donnez-moi, Seigneur, un mari de bon lieu! Qu'il soit doux, opulent, libéral et agréable!"
(Lord, give me a well-situated husband. Let him be gentle, rich, generous, and pleasant!")
At 25 and unwed:
""Seigneur, un qui soit supportable, ou qui, parmi le monde, au moins puisse passer!"
(Lord, one who is bearable, or who can at least pass as bearable in the world!")
and at 30:
"Un tel qu'il te plaira Seigneur, je m'en contente!"
("Send whoever you want, Lord; I'll be happy!")
The French Saint Catherine prayer is as:
Saint Catherine, be good
We have no more hope
but in you
You are our protector
Have pity on us
We implore you on our knees
Help us to get married
For pity's sake, give us a husband
For we're burning with love
Deign to hear the prayer
Which comes from our overburdened hearts
Oh you who are our mother
Give us a husband
In New Orleans, there is a traditional hat parade celebrating the Catherinettes and is held the weekend before Thanksgiving (though cancelled during COVID) for more on this parade, visit http://www.hatnola.com/
In England, the day marked the beginning of Advent and Cattern Cakes were made in honor of Saint Catherine (Click Here for a recipe) . There is also a custom of lighting a revolving fireworks display called a Catherine Wheel firework on the feast day.
Modern day Estonia still heavily celebrates Saint Catherine's Day as the arrival of winter and a day of celebration for Estonian women. Shearing and weaving of sheep is banned on Saint Catherine's day and townspeople dress up and go door to door on the night before to collect gifts.