As readers of this blog will know, lacemakers claim several saints as their patron, but the one most favoured in the English Midlands is Saint Catherine. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford celebrated the Feast of Saint Catherine on 25 November 2017 with a ‘lace day’. ISIS lacemakers demonstrated their skills and gave visitors a chance to make some lace themselves, while David Hopkin gave visitors talks about the lace tools on display and their connection to lacemakers’ work, feasts and folklore. There were Cattern cakes to try (though we’re probably not quite ready to submit our cakemaking talents to the Great British Bake Off). And we’re probably going to do the whole thing again next year.
Category: Lacemakers’ holidays
In our last post about lacemakers ‘keeping cattern’ on 25 November, we said that Saint Catherine ‘was not usually the named patron of European lacemakers’. However, we have learnt that there was one exception: the lacemakers of Antwerp province in Belgium, and specifically Mechelen (Malines), celebrated Saint Catherine’s Eve.
We owe this information to the Flemish writer Herman Baccaert (1883-1921) who, together with Antoine Carlier de Lantsheere, compiled an Encyclopaedia of lace-related information. Sadly this manuscript was lost during the First World War, but Baccaert did publish a few articles on lacemakers’ traditions, including their feast-days. He also wrote a novel set among lacemakers, which we’ll return to in a future blog.
According to Baccaert, in most of Belgian and French Flanders, and in Brabant, the lacemakers’ patron was Saint Anne, mother of Mary, whose feast fell on 26 July. There were some exceptions and additions. In Ieper (Ypres) the lacemakers’ holiday was ‘mooimakersdag’, the Wednesday preceding ‘Klein Sacramentdag’, which fell on the Thursday following Corpus Christi. (As the date of Corpus Christi depended on Easter, this was a moveable feast.) In Geraardsbergen (Grammont) in southern Flanders, the lacemakers’ celebrated instead Saint Gregory the Great. (Originally the holiday fell on 12 March, which oddly is Saint Gregory’s feast-day in the Orthodox Church but not the Catholic Church. Then, in the nineteenth century, it was moved to 9 May. According to a local lacedealer interviewed by Baccaert, the explanation for this was that the weather was better in May. However, 9 May is the feast-day of Saint Gregory Nazianzen, a different saint; it is also the feast of the translation of Saint Nicholas, which was an important holiday for lacemakers in Lille. So there may have been more going on here.) Although Baccaert did not mention this, Saint Theresa of Avila’s feast on 15 October was also popular among lacemakers in West Flanders, in Bruges and Courtrai (Brugge and Kortrijk). But this holiday was promoted by some religious orders which held the saint in particular esteem; in general Saint Anne was the recognized patron in West Flanders.
In Antwerp province, however, it was Saint Catherine. It is worth quoting Baccaert’s description in full because it offers some interesting parallels with ‘catterning’ in the East Midlands. The lace industry had been in decline in the region for several decades, so Baccaert was referring to the past, not current practice.
“On Saint Catherine’s eve, at sunset on 24 November, ‘the candleblock was washed’ [‘den lichter begoten’]. The candleblock was a wooden stand which served as an appliance to spread light over the lacemakers’ pillows. It consisted of a candle or an oil-lamp as well as a spherical bottle filled with pure water, the so-called ‘ordinaal’, which concentrated the light falling on the pillow.
“In the evening they cooked up a brandy punch called ‘the Devil in Hell’, which was passed to and fro because there was always another willing mouth to take care of. It was the season for smoked herring and these were laid on the fire to sizzle and spit; everyone also had some tasty morsel, especially gingerbread and sweetmeats, and thus late into the night they would sing, gossip and tell stories.”
‘Washing the candleblock’ was also the euphemistic name for celebrating Catterns in parts of the East Midlands. Saint Catherine’s was ‘Candle Day’, because traditionally this was the day when lacemakers began to use artificial light. And just as there was a Cattern cake in the East Midlands, so there was a ‘Sint Catharinagebak’ in East Flanders: the recipe is given on p.99 of André Delcart’s Winterfeesten en Gebak: Mythen, folklore en tradities (Cyclus, 2007) This is not the only parallel in the customs of the two regions: the chanting of ‘tells’ in Midlands lace-schools echoes the use of ‘tellingen’ to control the pace of work in Flemish lace workshops. Here is another which also tends to confirm the claim ― often asserted but difficult to prove ― that lace skills came to England from the Low Countries with Flemish migrants in the sixteenth century.
Baccaert, Herman. ‘Gebruiken bij Kantwerksters’, Volkskunde: Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsche Folklore 19 (1907-8): 223-229
Baccaert, Herman. ‘Bijdrage tot de Folklore van het kantwerk’, Volkskunde: Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsche Folklore 21 (1910): 169-175.
There is a very good Flemish website on Mechelen lace and lace history, ‘Mechelen & Kant‘.
The longest day and the shortest night,
Jim Horn sat by candle light.
When his mother heard it, she did stamp and swear,
And from his head pulled a handful of hair.
According to Mrs Frederica Orlebar (1887), the promoter of lace and lacemakers’ feasts, this rhyme was sung during Cattern celebrations. Apparently Jim Horn was a male lacemaker whose family still lived in the village of Poddington; his mother was no doubt incensed by the waste of expensive candles when natural light was sufficient. Violence visited upon children by parents was a common theme of lacemakers’ rhymes and tells, as we’ll see in a subsequent post. However, the “longest day and the shortest night” element of this rhyme was more usually associated with “Barnaby Bright” and chanted on 11 June, which is Saint Barnabas’s day (and which, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, would have fallen even closer to the summer solstice).
The winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night, when candles definitely were permitted, now falls on the feast of Saint Thomas. “Thomassing” is the last of the winter holidays associated with Midlands lacemakers. As with the other feasts we have discussed, it was not restricted to lacemakers. In fact it was celebrated much more widely than either Saint Catherine’s or Saint Andrew’s, as it has been recorded across most parts of England south of the Trent. The primary celebrants seem to have been older women, sometimes specifically widows, and occasionally young children. They would go “a-thomassing”, or “mumping” or “gooding” from door to door, perhaps singing or chanting, and collecting money, food and candles. This rhyme was used at Bliston Staffordshire in the nineteenth-century to encourage donations (we’ve found no records of such rhymes used in the east Midlands):
Well a day, well a day,
St Thomas goes too soon away,
Then your gooding we do pray,
For the good times will not stay,
St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey,
The longest night and the shortest day,
Please to remember St Thomas’s day.
Without these gifts from neighbours the poor would not be able to celebrate Christmas. “Mumping” is an old word meaning begging, but perhaps that does not quite capture the attitude of Thomassers. This is Walter Rose’s description of “Thomassing” in Haddenham (Bucks) before the Second World War:
On the twenty-first of December each year the old dames of the village, going about in pairs, canvassed those who could afford it for alms. Their attitude was not one of indigent poverty; they came in recognition of a time-honoured custom, a rite that needed no other explanation but the plain announcement, “If you please, we’ve come a-thomassing”. As a custom it was interesting and picturesque, but it was certainly evidence of an earlier poverty, and we may be glad that the granting of old age pensions brought it to an end. Yet one old lady (to her honour) still keeps the custom going – to whom, if it be my last, my sixpence shall be given.
The term “gooding” does not mean that Thomassers were after “goodies” but rather they presented an opportunity to do good. The story (which dates back to at least the 3rd century AD) goes that Saint Thomas the apostle was employed by a certain king Gondophares in what is now Afghanistan to build a glorious palace. Saint Thomas took all the money and gave it to the poor. The king was understandably angry until his deceased brother appeared to him in a dream and showed him the palace that his charity had built for him in heaven. Although this story does not seem to be widely known, it perhaps explains why Saint Thomas was an appropriate patron for seeking alms. According to Catholic doctrine, charity was the means to store up spiritual wealth. Yet oddly the historian Ronald Hutton (in his Stations of the Sun) has found little evidence of Thomassing before the Reformation, and while there are numerous parish benefactions, for instance at Leighton Buzzard (Beds) and Ravensden (Beds), which distributed doles to the parish poor on Saint Thomas’s day, most of these seem to date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Lacemakers very often numbered among the poor, including at Haddenham, Leighton Buzzard and Ravensden, but lacemakers were not specifically singled out for this charity. Lacemakers’ connection to Saint Thomas comes through the lace-schools which, as with Catterns and Tanders, provided an institutional framework for the maintenance of old traditions even while they were falling away in other regions. According to Catherine Channer, a Northamptonshire lace teacher at the beginning of the twentieth century, the children used to take the opportunity to “turn out” their teacher.
It is St. Thomas’s Day. The children are assembled; row behind row they are sitting, with their fat pillows resting against the stands before them. But by the look of repressed excitement on every face, there is evidently something about to happen. Presently the teacher leaves the room on the pretence of getting a parchment. In a minute the girl nearest the door has sprung up and bolted it; the pillows are put on one side, and an indescribable hubbub ensues. When the teacher returns she shakes the door violently, demanding to be let in; but the answer comes from thirty voices, “It’s St. Thomas’s Day; give us a half-holiday, and we’ll let you in.” For five minutes or so she stands outside grumbling and knocking, and then, finding that the children have turned the stools against her, she (not unwillingly, perhaps) gives in. The holiday is promised, the door is opened, and she walks in as the children rush out. As we watch them laughing and shouting, we think it is a pity that custom should have fixed their holiday for one of the dullest and certainly the shortest of the days in the year.
Channer does not mention the location of this school (and the implication is that the description could apply to many Midland lace schools), but possibilities include Ecton (Northants) and Stoke Goldington (Bucks). In his diary, John Cole of Ecton recorded the “turning out” of the mistress at Ecton lace school on Saint Thomas’s in 1832, while Thomas Wright records the same for Stoke Goldington in his The Romance of the Pillow.
One ‘keeps cattern’ but one ’goes tandering’. We are not sure whether this semantic difference is meaningful. Nor are we certain why Saint Andrew became the patron of Midland lacemakers, who celebrated his feast either on ‘new’ (30th November) or ‘old’ (11 December) Saint Andrew’s Day. We know no legend or song that would account for this role similar to those told about Saint or Queen Catherine, and to our knowledge Saint Andrew was not held in particular reverence by any European lacemakers. One Catholic website suggests that it was because the Saint Andrew’s cross resembles intersecting threads… But we suspect that its origins are more ecclesiastical, because Saint Andrew is the patron of many of the churches in the diocese of Peterborough. It seems likely that Tanders was once a widely held village feast and that the association with lacemaking arose as other groups forgot, or were discouraged from, celebrating the saint.
In some parts of Northamptonshire Tanders was not associated with lacemakers. In Broughton 54 people were bound over to keep the peace in 1930 after a night ‘tandering’, and a further 14 Broughton residents received summons to appear before Kettering magistrates in 1931 for celebrating Tanders too loudly. The crowd, estimated by the police at 1000 strong, had wandered the streets after midnight, banging tin cans and saucepan lids. The background to this mass demonstration was that the Parish Council had banned ‘tandering’, despite an overwhelming local referendum in favour of its maintenance: Saint Andrew being the patron of village church. None of those arrested were lacemakers; in fact there was only one woman among them, a fourteen-year-old ‘tailoress’ who was discharged as too young to be put through the trauma of a magistrates’ court hearing. The local magistrates obviously did not understand the custom, and in 1930 they assumed that this was a form of ‘rough music’ (a type of popular justice used to shame those who had broken the unspoken rules of community life, akin to the ‘Skimmington Ride’ which features in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge). In 1931 the defendants hired a Northampton lawyer, Mr Burton, who argued, successfully, that Tanders was a traditional custom, always celebrated on the Sunday closest to ‘Old Saint Andrew’s’. The defendants were discharged on the basis that, as the magistrates instructed, ‘nothing of the same kind occurs next year’. However, the revival of Tanders at Broughton continues still with a tin can band and other night-time revels (the website In search of traditional customs and ceremonies has some pictures of the band in action from 2014).
Although widespread across central and southern Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire (some indication of Tanders celebrations, mostly held by lacemakers, have been recorded from Blisworth, Carlton, Cranfield, Elstow, Hanslope, Harrold, Kimbolton (Huntingdonshire), Leighton Buzzard, Milton Malsor, North Crawley, Olney, Pavenham, Stevington, Spratton, Stoke Goldington, Turvey, Wilstead, and Yardley Hastings) the custom passed largely unnoticed until the mid-nineteenth century. The first detailed account we have found so far was provided by Thomas Sternberg in 1851:
Of all the numerous red-letter days which diversified the lives of our ancestors, this is the only one which has survived to our own times in anything like its pristine character. St Andrew appears to be looked upon by the lace-makers as their patron saint; which may perhaps account for the estimation in which his festival is held. In many places, where progress has not yet shown her face, the day is one of unbridled licence – a kind of miniature carnival. Village ‘scholards’ bar out their master; the lace-schools are deserted, and drinking and feasting prevail to a riotous extent. Towards evening the sober villagers appear to have become suddenly smitten with a violent taste for masquerading. Women may be seen walking about in male attire, while men and boys have donned the female dress, and visit each other’s cottages, drinking hot ‘eldern wine,’ the staple beverage of the season. Then commences the Mumming, too often described to need mention here, save to note that in the rude drama performed in the Northamptonshire villages, St George has given place to George III, and the dragon, formerly the greatest attraction of the piece, been supplanted by Napoleon, who is annually killed on this night in personal encounter with the aforesaid monarch, to the intense delight and edification of the loyal audience.
Sternberg’s describes something more boisterous than the ‘cattern teas’ described in our last post, but in many villages the two events passed off in a comparable manner, with ‘washing the candle-block’ the central element. This next description of ‘Tanders’ in Bedfordshire sounds quite like ‘keeping catterns’. It was written by Mrs Kate Leila Edmonds from Summerfield, Carlton… not quite as grand as the Orlebars of Hinwick House who promoted Cattern in Podington over three generations, but still a local mover and shaker, president of the Carlton W.I. after the war, and a promoter of the lace industry. She wrote two extensive accounts of ‘Tanders’ for the Bedfordshire Times and Independent, one in 1900, the second in 1905. We have transcribed the first of these from The British Newspaper Archive. In neither does she give her source, but the memories are not her own; they describe events in the 1850s, whereas Mrs Edmonds was born in 1866. Both descriptions are strongly marked by nostalgia for simpler times of industrious peasants, a sentiment that often characterised attempts to revive the lace-trade:
Fifty years ago, in a little village of Bedfordshire there was great excitement amongst the pupils of the ‘lace school’ one cold November morning. The school dame had no need to scold that day for idleness, or for tardiness in arriving; all had come punctually, and worked with a will. For this was ‘St. Andrews Day,’ or as the lace-makers termed it ‘Tanders’ which brought a half holiday for them all. So the heads were bent over the lace pillows, and the quick fingers picked out the pins and stuck them in again rapidly that a novice would think it looked like play. Ah! but each pupil knew how much she can do in an hour; and she also knew that if she loitered or idled in the least, she could never make up for the lost time. For this lace making cannot be hurried; every stitch must receive the orthodox number of twists and crosses of the bobbins, to make good saleable lace. It was no uncommon thing for the ‘lace buyer’ to take off one half-penny in the yard if a lace was ill-made or not a pure white colour, and this was a consideration of much moment in days when halfpennies were so scarce. Holidays were almost as scarce as half-pennies; hence the unwonted attention of ‘Tanders’ morning fifty years ago. At last the welcome hour of twelve arrived, and one by one the pupils prepare to go home. Bobbins are carefully parted and pushed back each side of the pillow to prevent tangles. The ‘drawer,’ or narrow strip of patchwork is drawn over the lace to keep it spotless; a ‘cover,’ also made of print pieces, is pinned over the lace pillow, and work is over for the day. What a merry time they have! Let us look into one house and see how the lacemakers keep ‘Tanders day.’ The table, chairs, etc., are removed, and the ‘house-place’ cleared; for this is to be no stiff ceremonial party as we shall see. Someone has brought the ‘blades’ of a bobbin wheel, used in non-holiday times to stretch the skein of thread while winding. The ‘blades’ consist of two pieces of wood crossing each other in form like the letter X. The four points of the ‘blades’ being sharpened, a quarter of an apple is stuck on three points, and a piece of tallow candle on the fourth. Now the fun begins; the blades are suspended by a string from the ceiling. one of the party being blind-folded, the hands are tied behind, and as the blades are spun round the blind-folded one has to try to catch in the mouth a piece of apple from one of the points. Great is the fun and delight when, instead of a bite of apple, a bite of candle is taken. But much good temper prevails, and all are willing to take their turn at the ‘snap-apple,’ and so passes the amusement round. But now, the supply of apples being exhausted, and everybody tired of romping, the ‘snap-apple’ is abandoned, and the making of ‘Tanders’ sweets’ begins. These were days when dentists were almost unknown to country folk. Was this due to the fact that sugar was 5d a lb., and sweets regarded as a great luxury for the children? Whether this was so or not, the ‘Tanders’ sweets’ were good and wholesome, and coming only once a year they were in the eyes of the youngsters delicious. Brown sugar, and a very small lump of butter were the ingredients used in making the sweets, and until the boiling process was over everyone was in a state of great excitement and fear, lest the sweets should ‘turn to sugar’ and burn. The boiled sugar being poured on to a floured dish, each one had a hand in rolling or cutting sweets, and putting them by to cool.
The next morning was a trying time to the School Dame. Every lace-maker brought specimen’s of ‘Tander’s sweets’; some burnt black, some sugary, some clear as candy, and all exceedingly sticky. In vain does the School Dame threaten to ‘keep in’ and ‘tell your mother.’ The delinquents still eat sweets and muse on the joys of ‘Tander’s Day,’ thinking dismally what a pity it is that they have to wait a whole year before it comes again. Is it a pity? I think not.
Mrs Edmonds’ second article ended with an impassioned plea: ‘Wake up, English lace-makers? Teach your children all you know yourselves, and save the English lace trade from going out of the villages where it has been made for generations.’ Although probably not a lacemaker herself, her description of ‘snap apple’ and ‘Tanders sweets’ tally with other accounts. The reference to a school holiday may account for why lacemakers were among the last celebrators of Saint Andrew’s Day, as they were of St Catherine’s. The lace-school institutionalised memory of these holidays, and gave young lacemakers an incentive to maintain them. Hence the well-known account of ‘barring out’ at Spratton lace school, written in the 1890s but referring to events in the 1850s:
On S. Andrew’s Day they had a curious custom to seize the opportunity of the mistress leaving the room and then lock her out, and on her return they sang,
Pardon Mistress, Pardon Master, Pardon for a pin;
If you won’t give a holiday, We will not let you in.
After a brief display of counterfeited anger the mistress would give way, and the pupils had their half-holiday. The mistress was pretty severe, carrying a cane, and often giving them a cut if they behaved badly, and it is more than likely, says my informant, that they from time to time deserved it.
(The author of this account, which first appeared in Northamptonshire Notes and Queries in 1892, was Margaret Emily Roberts, the daughter of the vicar of Saint Andrew’s, Spratton, a lace teacher and active in the Midland Lace Association.)
Several accounts of Tanders mention a special cake consumed on that day. Pavenham W.I. contributed a recipe for a ‘Tandra cake’ to the 1948 Cookery Book of Traditional Dishes. We have still not tracked this down, but in the meantime here is Julia Jones’ and Barbara Deer’s recipe for a St Andrew’s Cake from Cattern Cakes and Lace. A Calendar of Feasts:
- 1lb/450g plain flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ oz/15 g fresh or ½ tablespoon dried yeast
- 1 teaspoon caster sugar
- ½ pint/300 ml warm water
- 1 egg beaten
- 4oz/100g lard, melted
- 4oz/100g currants
- 4oz/100 g sugar
- 1 oz diced crystallized lemon peel
- Oven 180 degrees C.
- Sift the flour and salt into a bowl.
- Cream the yeast with the teaspoon of sugar and blend in the water.
- Leave the yeast to froth and bubble, then mix with the beaten egg and add to the flour.
- Pour in the cooled, melted lard, and mix until smooth.
- Knead well, cover and leave to double in size.
- Knock back the dough and knead in the currants, sugar, and peel.
- Transfer to a greased 2lb/1kg loaf tin.
- Leave to rise until the dough reaches the top of the tin. 20-30 mins.
- Then back to oven for 60-70 mins until well risen and golden.
- Cool on a wire rack.
- Slice and serve with butter.
Anne Elizabeth Baker, Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases, With Examples of their Colloquial Use, And Illustrations from Various Authors: To Which are Added, the Customs of the County (London: John Russell Smith, 1854).
Kate Leila Edmonds, ‘The Lace Makers’ Patron Saint. Fifty Years Ago’, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 16 February 1900.
Kate Leila Edmonds, ‘St. Andrew’s Day or “Tanders”,’ Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 24 November, 1905.
Rev. E.R. Grant (Unitarian minister of Northampton), text of talk given on ‘The Legends and Folk-Lore of Northamptonshire’ at Northampton Town Hall, reported in the Northampton Mercury, 13 March 1880.
Dorothy Grimes, Like Dew Before the Sun. Life and Language in Northamptonshire (Northampton: Dorothy Grimes, 1991).
Julia Jones and Barbara Deer, Cattern Cakes and Lace: A Calendar of Feasts (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1987).
‘M.E.R’ [Margaret Emily Roberts], ‘Spratton Lace School’, Northamptonshire Notes and Queries, 4, 1892.
‘Tin Can Band in Court: Broughton Mummers who Celebrated “Tander”,’ Northampton Mercury, 2 January 1931.
Thomas Sternberg, The Dialect and Folk-Lore of Northamptonshire (London & Northampton: John Russell Smith, 1851).
Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow (Olney: H.H. Armstrong, 1919).
25 November is the Feast of Saint Catherine, and historically a holiday for the Midlands lacemakers, particularly those in Buckinghamshire and some northern parts of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. (Lacemakers in the southern and central parts of the latter counties tended to celebrate Saint Andrew’s Day instead; we deal with this holiday on his feast, 30 November.)
According to the ‘official’ legend — and we’ll see that lacemakers, and in fact almost everybody else who celebrated her feast, told a rather different story — Saint Catherine was a virgin martyr from early fourth century Alexandria in Egypt. Her father was the Roman governor of the province, but Catherine was a philosopher and Christian convert. She refused to submit first to the persecutions of Emperor Maxentius, then to his lascivious attentions, declaring that she was the bride of Christ. Infuriated, Maxentius ordered that she be broken on a wheel, but the device fell apart at her touch. Finally he had her beheaded.
Although there is little historical evidence for Catherine, she was one of the most popular saints in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and her cult clearly survived the Protestant Reformation in England. Because her attribute is the wheel, she became the patron of wheelwrights, and by extension carpenters, as well as ropemakers and spinners. She was the patron of both young women and old maids (spinsters in another sense), and as these groups formed the labour force for the needle trades, her patronage extended to all involved in textile production. The ‘bal de Sainte Catherine’ is still an important event in the calendar of the Paris fashion houses.
In England, ‘keeping Cattern’ —that is celebrating Saint Catherine’s Day — was by no means confined to lacemakers. Even after the Reformation, women in the workhouse would receive a dole in order to ‘keep Cattern’. In some towns, such as Ware and Peterborough, women — in the latter town principally the female inmates of the workhouse — paraded behind their own ‘queen’, singing:
Here comes Queen Catherine, as fine as any queen,
With a coach and six horses, a-coming to be seen,
And a-spinning we will go, will go,
And a-spinning we will go.
No doubt this was an opportunity to raise money for a feast later in the day. In other parts of the country, particularly Worcestershire (though the custom has been recorded elsewhere), it was young children who used this day as an opportunity to tramp from house to house collecting apples and ale, aided by a rhyme such as this one:
Catherine and Clement be here, be here,
Some of your apples and some of your beer;
Some for Peter, and some for Paul,
And some for Him that made us all.
Clement was good old man,
For his sake give us some,
None of the worst but some of the best,
And God will send your soul to rest!
Saint Clement’s feast falls on 23 November and was another important holiday, though usually observed in different regions to Saint Catherine’s. A Sussex version of this rhyme names ‘Cattern’ as the mother of ‘Clemen’, an unlikely relationship for a virgin saint! Other indications of her widespread popularity are a recipe for a Cattern pie from Somerset, and Cattern Fair held outside Guildford, where Cattern cakes were sold well into the nineteenth century.
However, by the late nineteenth century, lacemakers were almost the only group to still hold her in honour. Occasionally in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire the mummers who put on the traditional drama of Saint George and the Turkish Knight in the run-up to Christmas were called ‘Katterners’, though any specific memory of Saint Catherine seems to have been forgotten. Newspaper accounts suggest that ‘Cattern’ was still kept by carpenters in Chatteris (Cambridgeshire) in the 1860s, and the farmer Mr Lot Arnsby of Raunds (Northamptonshire), though a Baptist, still treated his labourers to cakes and ale on Saint Catherine’s Day in the 1870s. In both cases, the feast was held on 6 December, ‘Old Saint Catherine’s’, that is date of her feast before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in Britain in 1752 had entailed the loss of eleven days. These examples are very isolated compared with the numerous newspaper mentions of lacemakers ‘keeping Cattern’, sometimes on Old and sometimes on New Saint Catherine’s Day. In fact the feast seems to have undergone periodic revivals among lacemakers, often sponsored by local landowners and patrons of the lace industry.
Although there are references to women ‘Catherning’ or ‘keeping Catterns’ from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the earliest reference we have so far found to this day as a special feast among lacemakers is in a short article in Notes and Queries for May 1862 by ‘A.A.’ (we have not identified the initials) reporting that:
In Buckinghamshire, on Cattern Day (St. Catherine’s, 25th of November,) these hard-working people hold merry-makings, and eat a sort of cakes they call ‘wigs,’ and drink ale. The tradition says it is in remembrance of a Queen Catharine; who, when the trade was dull, burnt all her lace, and ordered new to be made.
Although A.A. asked readers who this Queen might have been, the topic went quiet in that journal until in 1868. Interest was revived then by a review in The Quarterly Review of Mrs Bury Palliser’s 1865 A History of Lace, in which the author claimed (and in this the reviewer was following Mrs Palliser’s lead) that:
Catherine of Aragon, according to tradition, introduced the art of making lace into Bedfordshire during her sojourn at Ampthill in 1531-33. She was a great adept in the arts of the needle. Until quite lately the lace-makers kept ‘Cattern’s-day’ as the holiday of their craft, in memory of the good Queen Catherine.
On what authority did Mrs Bury Palliser make this statement, asked J.M. Cowper in Notes and Queries? The several responses did not resolve that issue, but they did provide plenty of evidence for lacemakers ‘keeping Catterns’. For example, John Plummer, who originally came from Kettering, reported that the feast
is known to be kept, for several generations, throughout the whole of Northamptonshire lace-making districts, as well as in those of Bedfordshire. By some it is called ‘candle-day,’ from its forming the commencement of the season for working at lacemaking by candle-light.
He reiterated the tradition that ‘Queen Katherine was a great friend to the lacemakers’, but suggested that instead of Catherine of Aragon, Catherine Parr was meant, because the Parrs were a Northamptonshire family. However later in the same month A.A. returned to the topic and reiterated his story, this time definitely identifying the lace-burning queen as Catherine of Aragon.
Readers will have noticed that, so far, there is no reference to a saint in any of these lacemakers’ celebrations, only queens. Two different stories were told. The oldest, though how old we are uncertain, concerns a queen burning her lace in order to create more work for lacemakers. A ballad, claimed as traditional (though we have our doubts) was apparently sung at a Kattern Day revival in Marsh Gibbon in 1905:
Queen Katherine loved to deck with lace
The royal robes she wore;
But though she loved to wear her lace,
She loved the lace-folk more.
So now for good Queen Katherine’s sake
Put bones and sticks away,
And keep the yearly festival
And sing on ‘Kattern Day.’
As one recent historian has written, this story encapsulates a feminine, utopian economy which completely denies the laws of supply and demand, and in which the great existed to provide work for the small, and ‘harmoniously brings together the otherwise separate processes of production and consumption.”’18]
The second story, crediting Queen Catherine of Aragon as the original teacher of lace in England, is slightly later in origin but far more widespread, as it was regularly repeated in newspaper accounts in the late nineteenth century, became the focus of W.I. lectures and pageants in the twentieth, and is now regularly repeated on the web. This continuing tradition owes everything to Mrs Palliser’s reputation as a reliable historian of lace, it has no basis in any oral tradition linking that queen with the genesis of the lace industry. Mrs Palliser inferred from rather vague lacemakers’ traditions concerning a ‘good queen who protected their craft’, that the art of lace-working, as it then existed, was first imparted to the peasantry of Bedfordshire, as a means of subsistence, through the charity of Katherine of Aragon.’ To return to J.M. Cowper’s question in Notes and Queries — on what authority had this claim been advanced — the answer is on no greater authority than Mrs Palliser’s romantic inference. However, her invention has proved enormously popular, for it invoked a tradition of royal patronage of lace that was, at the time, still vital to the trade.
We doubt that Catterns had a connection to any English queen; rather it was the continuation of a Catholic saint’s day feast in Protestant England. We cannot say when and where the tradition turned the saint into queen: it may have been a post-Reformation defensive measure, for it was permitted to celebrate royalty when Catholic saints had fallen into disrepute. However, it is worth pointing out that in the popular culture of Catholic Europe, Catherine was always imagined as a queen, or at least a princess. The first line of a song popular throughout Spain, France and Italy, and indeed much further afield, tells us that Catalina/Catherine/Caterina was a ‘hija de un rey’ (in Spanish), ‘fille d’un roi’ (in French), ‘figlia di un re’ (in Italian). Sometimes she is specifically identified as the daughter of the king of Hungary; in all cases it is her father, not a Roman emperor, who is responsible for her martyrdom. And while Saint Catherine was not usually the named patron of European lacemakers, nonetheless European lacemakers knew and sang her story. For example, in an audio recording made by Jean Dumas in 1959, you can hear Virginie Granouillet, a seventy-year-old lacemaker from Roche-en-Régnier (Haute-Loire), accompanying her bobbins with a version of the song.
How did lacemakers ‘keep Catterns’? There are vague references to an earlier period when women dressed up in male attire and indulged in unfettered merry-making, including amorous (or violent) advances to passing men, a moment of female license, but we have no specific information. The fullest description comes from Mrs Frederica Orlebar of Hinwick House, Podington (Bedfordshire) who wrote an account of an attempted revival in 1887 — which would form the template for further revivals in 1906 and 1937. The Orlebars were landed gentry who had provided leadership to the county, as magistrates, M.P.s and masters of the hunt for several generations. Their patronage of the lace industry was part and parcel of this paternalistic concern for their tenants and electors. Catherine Channer used the manuscript ‘Orlebar Chronicles’ to write her 1900 account:
In Podington and neighbouring villages the lacemakers have, within the memory of middle-aged people, ‘kept Cattern’, on December 6th – St. Catherine’s Day (Old Style).
I believe it was Catherine of Aragon who used to drink the waters of a mineral spring in Wellingborough, and who (as is supposed) introduced lace-making into Beds. The poor people know nothing of the Queen, only state that it was an old custom to keep ‘Cattern.’
The way was for the women to club together for a tea, paying 6d. apiece, which they could well afford when their lace brought them in 5s. or 6s. a week. The tea-drinking ceremony was called ‘washing the candle-block,’ but this was merely an expression. It really consisted in getting through a great deal of gossip, tea, and Cattern cakes – seed cakes of large size. Sugar balls went round as a matter of course. After tea they danced, just one old man whistling or fiddling for them, and ‘they enjoyed themselves like queens!
The entertainment ended with the cutting of a large apple pie, which they divided for supper. Their usual bedtime was about eight o’clock.
This may be more staid than earlier celebrations, but some of the elements referred to here come up in other accounts too. The first is that it was a communal women’s festival: a man might provide the music but the lacemakers danced with each other. Money was pooled to provide food, drink and entertainment: rabbit or steak with onion sauce, followed by pies and cakes. Cattern pies — sometimes containing mincemeat, sometimes apples (as we have seen, Catterners collected apples) — might be arranged in the shape of a wheel, with partakers being offered a ‘spoke’. Mrs Orlebar quoted a rhyme, apparently sung by the nightwatchman of Kettering, which made the pies the centrepiece of the celebration:
Rise, maids arise!
Bake your Cattern pies!
Bake enough, and bake no waste,
So that the old bell-man may have a taste!
Cattern cakes appear to be a different thing to a Cattern pie: the cakes come in various descriptions but the recipes almost always contain caraway seeds, which connects them to the ‘soul cakes’ consumed at Halloween in other parts of the country. The drink mentioned in connection with these festivities was methleglin, a honey mead termed ‘meytheagle’ in the Bedfordshire dialect.
The term ‘washing’ or ‘wetting the candle-block’ explains why Plummer called this a ‘candle-day’. The holiday was not just the celebration of the patroness of lacemakers, it was the ritual marking of an important moment in the lacemakers’ year, for this was the day when candles, objects of enormous expense, could legitimately be used for evening work. These kind of candle feasts, opening and closing the period of neighbourly winter evening work gatherings, were quite common all over Europe. Among English lacemakers the closing day of the season appears to have been Candlemas (2 February), though it was not celebrated as much as Catterns. This practice of working together to share light and heat also explains why Catterns was a communal feast. A candle-block provided light not for one lacemaker but many: a single candle would be mounted in the centre of several glass globes or flasks filled with snow-water, which would concentrate the light on the pillows of several lacemakers (the highest number of users of a single candle that we have so far encountered is eighteen!). But lacemakers did not only symbolically ‘wash’ the candleblock, they also leapt over it. According to John Aubrey, back in the 1680s, Oxfordshire girls (not specifically lacemakers) would ‘set a candle in the middle of the room in a candlestick, and then draw up their coats into the form of breaches [another hint at cross-dressing], and dance over the candle back and forth, with these words’:
The tailor of Biciter [Bicester]
He has but one eye
He cannot cut a pair of green galagaskins
If he were to die.
Aubrey thought the custom was obsolete even in his time, but in fact the same game, and the same rhyme, have been recorded as late as 1910.
Thomas Wright notes a different song being chanted by pupils jumping the candlestick in the lace schools at Wendover:
Wallflowers, Wallflowers, growing up so high,
All young maidens surely have to die;
Excepting Emma Caudrey, she’s the best of all.
She can dance and she can skip,
She can turn the candlestick.
Turn, turn, turn your face to the wall again
Given the height of a lighted candle on a block players ran significant risks during this game. It is interesting to observe that even on holiday, lacemakers insist on the presence of death.
We can’t leave Catterns without giving a recipe for Cattern cakes. In 1948, Podington, Hinwick and Farndish Women’s Institute provided a recipe for the Cookery Book of Traditional Dishes which accompanied the ‘Home Produce Exhibition’. We have not been able to track down a copy of this, so we have borrowed a recipe from the North Downs Lacemakers’ website:
- 9oz /275g self raising flour
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 oz/25g currants
2oz/50g ground almonds
- 2 teaspoons caraway seeds
- 7oz/200g caster sugar
- 4oz/100g melted butter
- 1 medium egg, beaten
- A little extra sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling
- Sift the flour and cinnamon into a bowl and stir in currants, almonds, caraway seeds and sugar.
- Add the melted butter and beaten egg, mix well to give a soft dough (add a little milk if too dry).
- Roll out on a floured board into a rectangle, about 12×10 inches/30x25cm.
- Brush the dough with water and sprinkle with the extra sugar and cinnamon.
- Roll up like a swiss roll and cut into ¾ inch/2cm slices.
- Place on a greased baking tray spaced well apart and bake for 10 minutes. Oven set at 200 degrees C /400 degrees F/Gas 6.
- Cool on a wire rack.
We’ve tried it, and the results were very tasty, though they didn’t look as much like Catherine Wheels as we had intended.
 See Ann Monjaret’s wonderful study, La Sainte Catherine: Culture festive dans l’entreprise (Paris, 1997).
 Robert Gibbs refers to an entry in the Aylesbury overseers’ accounts for 1672: A Historyof Aylesbury with the Borough and Hundreds, The Hamlet of Walton, and The Electoral Division. Aylesbury, Bucks Advertiser, 1885
 A. R. Wright, British Calendar Customs, ed. T. E. Lones, (Folk-Lore Society, 1936), iii. 108, 144. The tune, presumably, is ‘A begging we will go’. Pete Castle recorded a version of the song on the album ‘False Waters’. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABjMfqjl2pQ
 James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales of England (London, 1849) p. 238. For a map of ‘Catterning’ in the West Midlands See Charlotte S. Burne. ‘Souling, Clementing, and Catterning. Three November Customs of the Western Midlands’, Folk-Lore 25:3 (1914), p. 285.
 William Douglas Parish, A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect and Collection of Provincialisms in Use in the County of Sussex (Lewes, 1875), p.25: ‘Catterning’.
 Margaret Baker. Folklore and Customs of Rural England (Newton Abbot, 1974), p. 132.
 A.J.M. ‘Catherine Hill in Surrey’, Notes and Queries 7th series II, 14 August 1886.
 Walter Rose, Good Neighbours. Some Recollections of an English Village and its People, Cambridge UP, 1943, pp. 131-5 (based on his experiences in Haddenham, Bucks). Fred Hamer recorded the same usage in Bedfordshire, though the ‘Folk Play Distribution Map: Actors’ Names’ on Peter Millington’s Master Mummers Website suggests it was quite rare even in this region: http://www.mastermummers.org/atlas/ActorsNames.php?maptype=outline&go=Go+%3E%3E
 Cambridge Independent Press, Saturday 8 December 1860.
 Peterborough Advertiser, 13 December 1879.
 Charles Lamotte, An Essay upon Poetry and Painting, with Relation to the Sacred and Profane History (London, 1730), p. 126.
 A.A., ‘Lace-Makers’ Custom: Wigs, A Sort of Cake’, Notes and Queries 3rd series I, 17 May, 1862, p. 387.
 ‘History of Lace, by Mrs Bury Palliser’, review in The Quarterly Review 125 (July-Oct., 1868): pp. 166-188, p. 168.
 J.M. Cowper, ‘Cattern’s Day’, Notes and Queries 4th series II, 29 August, 1868, p. 201.
 John Plummer, ‘Kattern’s Day’, Notes and Queries 4th series II. 3 October, 1868., p. 333.
 A.A. ‘Kattern’s Day’, Notes and Queries 4th series II, 17 October, 1868, p. 377.
 Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, Saturday 2 December 1905.
 Elaine Freedgood, ‘“Fine Fingers”: Victorian Handmade Lace and Utopian Consumption’, Victorian Studies 45 (2003), p. 637.
 Fanny Bury Palliser, A History of Lace (2nd edition: London, 1869), p. 326.
 The Pan-Hispanic Ballad Project lists 42 versions of IGRH song-type 0126 ‘Santa Catalina’ https://depts.washington.edu/hisprom/optional/balladaction.php?igrh=0126 ; the Coirault catalogue of French folk songs likewise lists numerous versions of song-type 8906 ‘Le martyre de sainte Catherine’; there is no equivalent Italian catalogue of folk-songs, but it is quite a common children’s song: in our experience all Italians know of it.
 Christina Hole. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. Hutchinson, 1976
 Northampton Mercury, Friday 14 December 1906; Northampton Mercury, Friday 26 February 1937.
 Catherine C. Channer and Margaret E. Roberts, Lace-making in the Midlands, Past and Present (London, 1900), pp. 70-71.
 A recipe is offered in Joanna Bogle, A Book of Feasts and Seasons (Leominster, 1992).
 ‘Wetting the Candleblock’, Bedfordshire Mercury, Friday 13 December 1912.
 Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace PillowOlney, Bucks: H.H. Armstrong, 1919, p. 202.
 James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales: A Sequel to the Nursery Rhymes of England (London, 1849), p.231, quoting from the manuscript of Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme; Arthur R. Wright and T.E. Lones, British Calendar Customs: England (London, 1940), vol. 3, p. 178.
 Thomas Wright, The Romance of the Lace Pillow (Olney, 1919), p. 195. Obviously the name used depends on the player. A similar rhyme was recorded by Fred Hamer at Biddenham in Bedfordshire.
 ‘Women’s Institutes. Traditional Dishes for National Exhibition. Bedfordshire’s Contributions’, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, Friday 24 September 1948
 http://www.northdownslacemakers.org.uk/features/2007/catterns-day.php A very similar recipe is provided in Julia Jones and Barbara Deer, Cattern Cakes and Lace: A Calender of Feasts (London, 1987).