For generations of Quebec children, Saint Catherine's Day was the sweetest of the year — marked by community gatherings and turning gooey molasses into pulled taffy.
With the Roman Catholic Church's gradual decline, however, the celebrations meant to honour Catherine, considered the patron saint of girls and unmarried women, have also cooled off.
But while most elementary school children no longer get to spend an afternoon pulling warm buttery taffy into golden strands, some Quebecers are keeping the Nov. 25 holiday alive.
"At one time it was as big as Halloween," says Madeleine Juneau, general manager at Maison Saint-Gabriel, a Montreal history museum that hosts festivities to celebrate the occasion.
In previous decades, schools would mark the day with a party with taffy pulls and hat-making contests. The night before, townspeople would get together for food, music and dancing.
Women who reached the age of 25 without being married were designated "old maids" or "Catherinettes" and had to wear an outlandish bonnet as they were teased about their inability to find a husband. Juneau says the festivities were also a chance for young women to attract husbands by offering them candy to showcase their culinary skills.
"It's an extraordinary holiday, and we want people to relive it," she said.
On Nov. 20, their Saint Catherine's Day festivities will include traditional music, storytellers, and taffy-making demonstrations by women dressed as Kings Wards — young French women recruited to move to New France to serve as potential brides for settlers.
The namesake of the day is Catherine of Alexandria, who, according to legend, was beheaded in the early fourth century for refusing to marry a Roman emperor.
But Quebec's candy-making tradition is traced to Marguerite Bourgeoys, a nun and educator who used to make taffy to entice her young students to come to the school she founded in 1658.
The Maison Saint-Gabriel, a 300-year-old farmhouse once purchased by Bourgeoys, has committed to keeping the tradition alive as part of its mission to educate visitors on life in Quebec in the 17th to 19th centuries.
Although public celebrations have largely fallen by the wayside, the tradition lives on in some Quebec kitchens.
In the east of the province, a group of 40 women — and a few men — from Sayabec are preparing to boil, pull and cut 25,000 pieces of the candy using the traditional recipe of molasses, sugar, corn syrup, butter and baking soda.
Marielle Roy, the president of the women's group who organizes the event, said she, like most others, first learned the technique from her mother.
Now, she says, the group does it as a fundraiser and for the pleasure of carrying on a tradition.
"November, it seems like a sad month, so to get together as a group of women does us good," she said. "It warms the heart."
The annual event, which inclues a community bingo night, is included on the Quebec culture minister's list of "intangible cultural heritage."
Because so few people are carrying on the day's tradition, Juneau says she gives out the recipe to Maison Saint-Gabriel visitors.
She explains how the candy is made in the hopes they'll try it at home with their kids.
"This is something that will be lost if we don't pass on the knowledge," she said.
Maison Saint-Gabriel's Saint Catherine's Day celebrations take place Nov. 20 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Guided tours of the museum are from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday until Dec. 25. Visit www.maisonsaint-gabriel.qc.ca for more information.
The Past Whispers
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