Pity the Catherinettes of old Paris! For if a woman failed to snag a mate by the time she was 25, she would wear a special hand-made bonnet on the feast day of St. Catherine to signal her predicament.
Trimmed in yellow for faith and green for wisdom, the hats may have been created for the maidens by sympathetic friends who may also have performed additional kindnesses and shows of support on Nov. 25. The would-be old maid was expected to visit a statue of the saint and repeat a traditional prayer asking for help finding a husband.
More than 100 years later, New Orleans has adopted the St. Catherine’s Day hat tradition (though not the spinster, husband-seeking part) and infused it with — what else? — a carnival flair.
For one thing, there’s a walking parade of be-hatted women who wind their way on a milelong route through the Garden District, starting at Pleasant Street and St. Charles Avenue at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
And what parade (float or walking) would be complete without music? Zazou City, a Gypsy jazz band, accompanies the steppers en route, carried by a buggy drawn by a mule.
Libations will flow, as befits a local celebration. These ladies will be sipping champagne — served by gentlemen in formal attire.
When New Orleans began tipping its collective hat to St. Catherine a few years ago, event organizers said they were stunned by the size of the crowd that assembled.
For this fourth annual event, numbers could surpass the 150 mark already established. And the fanciful nature of the attire can only grow: Expect everything from tiaras to wreaths to chapeaux, bedecked with feathers, net, ribbon and flowers.
“I’m always amazed at the variety of hats,” says parade organizer Claudia Lynch. “Whether you create something wild and special for the occasion, show off a pretty vintage hat, or just grab something from your closet on your way out the door, it’s a real celebration!”
St. Catherine of Alexandria was an early Christian martyr who is said to have rebuffed pressure to marry and to have been tortured on a spiked wheel for her refusal.
A cult of St. Catherine arose, and she became the patron saint of unwed women, in addition to playing many other roles.
After the Parisian tradition of Catherinettes gained prominence, Catherine developed into the patron saint of milliners.
New Orleans won’t be the only city honoring St. Catherine this month. In Paris, couture houses now participate in parades, as does the Milliners Guild in Manhattan.
In Britain, children light revolving “Catherine’s Wheel” fireworks, a gruesome reference to the spiked wheel; in Canada, marriage-age females in Quebec make taffy for eligible men.
One of the best things about the local parade is that no registration is necessary and no fees are paid. Just arrive, hat on head, preferably a bottle of champagne in hand, and start mingling.
You don’t have to be an unmarried female to strut your stuff. In fact, husbands and sons may tag along if you wish.
Lynch and a cadre of her friends started the parade after seeing photos from the hat procession in Paris and thinking the tradition would translate well to New Orleans.
“I called my friend and she called a friend and it just grew and grew,” Lynch said. “We built our numbers using social media and our email lists.”
Music has been part of the event since the second year.
“That year, we put the band in a pedicab but it didn’t work out that well,” Lynch said. “So now we put the band in a buggy.”
There will be an award made for best hat, an accolade that Mary Ann Murphy won last year, earning her the right to be the parade’s grand marshal. Lynch said that last year’s hats were so impressive that she and her committee will make awards in additional categories this year.
“We don’t know what categories yet,” she said. “It all depends on how many hats we love.”