November 25th is Sainte Catherine's day, otherwise known in France as the day of the Catherinettes. On this day, young women aged 25 who are not yet married have the opportunity to wear a hat and go looking for a husband!
Although the event has little relevance in today's society and is no longer celebrated (apart from in a slightly ironic manner or as a family rite of passage), it was a historically important occasion, and this has been captured by a sculpture in the Square du Montholon in the 10th arrondissement.
The sculpture shows five young working-class women, most probably from the hatmaking or dressmaking trades (of which there were many in the district) celebrating the Sainte-Catherine. It was an important tradition in these communities in French cities in the 19th century, giving young working women the opportunity to break away from the harsh conditions of the workshop. They would put on their best clothes (and a specially made hat) and attend organised balls and parties, events that were sometimes considered their last chance to find a husband!
In this sculpture, the work of an artist called Julien Lorieux, you can see five women linked arm in arm, each wearing an extravagant hat (although not as extravagant as in the photo above!), with two or three of the women also carrying orange blossoms or papier-mâché oranges. These young women have probably been caught by the sculptor at the moment they left their place of work before heading off to the evening ball, an event that they seem to be very much looking forward to.
Julien Lorieux didn't live to see his sculpture being unveiled. As with many men of his generation, he was to die prematurely during the First World War, and although he had created the sculpture in 1908, and sold it to the city of Paris in 1913, it wasn’t displayed to the public until 1923.
By that time, was the tradition already beginning to seem like old-fashioned folklore? The event was off course originally a religious one. Girls were traditionally thought to be under the protection of Sainte Catherine, while Saint Nicolas looked after the boys. On November 25th, girls participated in devotion groups where they created a headdress to place on her statue. Young women left the group when they got married, and therefore taking part in the ceremony became synonymous with still being single after 25.
Although developments in society saw first the religious elements dropped, then the need to find a husband at an early age, it is still pleasing to see a popular tradition commemorated in this manner. So, if you know any unmarried 25 year old women, don't forget to wish them a happy Sainte Catherine's day on the 25th!