Today is the feast of Saint Catherine, a fact which really means nothing to me now that I’m a bonafide adult living in a secular, anglophone world. When I was a kid attending French Catholic school, though, St. Catherine’s Day was one of my red-letter days. Back then, every month seemed to have a holiday or feast day; these little celebrations and diversions helped us make it through the long school year. For anglo kids, the big November holiday was probably Remembrance Day, but for those of us at École Cardinal Léger, November 11th was always overshadowed by November 25th. This was true for one reason and one reason only: candy. Lots of candy.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria is mostly famous for the terrible way she died. Born to the (pagan) king and queen of Alexandria, Catherine converted to Christianity at the age of 14. The reason for her conversion was a mystical vision in which the Virgin Mary gave Catherine to Jesus as a wife, and the two of them joined together in a holy union – I mean, you know, the usual. Catherine went on to convert hundreds of pagans to Christianity which, naturally, angered the Roman emperor at the time, Maxentius. Maxentius, a big fan of persecuting Christians, decided that the solution to his problem was to marry Catherine. When she refused (because she was already married to Jesus, duh), he tried to break her on the wheel. God, naturally, destroyed said wheel, so Maxentius just beheaded Catherine instead. I’m unsure as to how God could destroy the wheel but still allow her to be beheaded, but, um, I guess he works in mysterious ways?
Naturally, you want to know what the hell this all has to do with candy.
Relax. I’m getting to that.
The key to our modern celebration of Saint Catherine’s Day is Marguerite Bourgeouys, a nun who came to Canada in the 1600s. Marguerite opened a public school for girls in Montreal in 1658 (yay!), which marked the beginning of public schooling in Montreal (double yay!). She then decided that the First Nations children should also attend her school (problematic?) and began to devise ways by which she could lure them to her schoolhouse (definitely problematic). Her solution was to make taffy and then leave a trail of said taffy all the way from the local First Nations settlement to her schoolhouse (SUPER PROBLEMATIC). Oh, and apparently she made this taffy on St. Catherine’s Day, and young French Canadians have been doing so ever since.
I mean, at least her intentions were good? That has to count for something, right?
Anyway, Marguerite Bourgeoys is a saint now, so at least she’s got that going for her.
My sister was born on November 24th, 1988. I remember the day of her birth pretty clearly; my mother came into my room early in the morning to tell me that she was going to the hospital to be induced, and then my principal pulled me out of class around noon with the news that I was now a big sister. My principal let me sit in her office and make my mother a card, probably assuming that I would produce the standard “YAY BABY” Hallmark-type fare. I, naturally, had other ideas in mind. Most likely influenced by the fact that Christmas was only a month away, I ended up drawing my mother as the Virgin Mary and my new sister as the Baby Jesus. Being a student at a Catholic school, I, of course, had heard the term virgin thrown around. However, being only six years old, I had no idea what it meant. I thought that “virgin” was synonymous with “good person”, which helps explain why, on my card, I wrote, Maman, tu es une vierge [Mama, you are a virgin]. I think I remember indulgent smiles from the grown ups at my school; at any rate, they didn’t immediately seize my card and burn it, so it couldn’t have been too blasphemous.
That night, I went to visit my mother in the hospital. There was an earthquake while we were there; a small one, but big enough that it made the glass tremble on my mother’s bedside table and the tacky framed prints sway on the wall. My parents laughed, and joked that it was an omen portending that my sister would accomplish great things. That one remark was a watershed moment in my life; for the first time, I experienced that complicated, emotionally charged state that we call sibling rivalry. What did they mean that she would accomplish great things? Had they said the same thing about me at my birth? What had my omens been?
I asked if there had been an earthquake the night I was born. No, my parents said. How about a full moon? A thunderstorm? Anything? My parents just rolled their eyes and laughed. Meanwhile, I glared at my fat, red, wrinkled nemesis.
The next night, when my father brought me back to the hospital for another visit, I proudly announced that we’d celebrated St. Catherine’s Day at school by making candy. My parents, who hadn’t yet come up with a name for my sister, gave each other this look like, WHOA, ARE YOU THINKING WHAT I’M THINKING? WE ARE FOR SURE GENIUSES.
Needless to say, they named her Catherine.
Catherine, which I thought was probably the bossiest name I’d ever heard.
Catherine, the perfect name for someone who would accomplish great things.
As if to rub salt in the wounds, my parents insisted on telling everyone that my sister’s name had been my idea. Whenever they said this in my presence, I would yell, THAT’S A DAMN LIE, I WANTED TO NAME HER SOPHIE, and then, naturally, immediately get sent to my room. I spent a lot of time in my room after my sister’s birth, mostly because I couldn’t understand how my parents could equate my casually mentioning a name in their presence with suggesting it as the word that we would ever use when referring to my new sibling. In retrospect, I’m sure that my parents were trying to help me adapt to having a sister after spending more than half a decade as an only child; at the time it just seemed like they were wilfully ignoring everything I had to say.
When Catherine started school, her teachers went out of their way to make St. Catherine’s Day a big deal for her. They would make her a paper crown, and spend the day treating her like a princess. At the end of the festivities, she would bring home a bigger pile of candy than anyone else.
Did I have a special saint’s day that gave my the chance to wear a crown and bring home an exceptionally large pile of candy?
No. No, I did not.
Probably because I wasn’t destined to do great things.
Throughout Catherine’s early years, I found various ways to torment her. I stuck clothespins in her hair. I called her ridiculous names. I made faces at her at the dinner table. Nothing I did was overly terrible, but then, it didn’t need to be; Catherine threw tantrums as if she had a calling for it. Catherine screamed and kicked as if it was her vocation; she once had a legendary meltdown over the fact that her toast was cut vertically instead of diagonally. This meant that it was both easy and satisfying to provoke her.
When I entered my teen years, my mother developed a fascination with mediums and psychics. She began having her tarot cards read on a regular basis.
“The psychic says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles,” she told me once in the car, as she was driving me to a dance class.
Naturally, I was more interested in what she’d had to say about me.
“Oh, she says, you’re boy-crazy,” my mother replied dismissively, “as if I didn’t already know that. But she says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles.”
“What does that even mean?” I asked
“I don’t know, but I’d better not hear you making fun of her for it,” my mother said in her most threatening tones.
Why would I make fun of her for it? I knew exactly what it meant. It meant that she was destined to do great things, while I was destined to be a pathetic, boy-crazy teenager forever.
Catherine and I continued to have an adversarial relationship throughout the rest of my time in high school, and my first few years of university. I can clearly remember bringing Matt home to meet my family for the first time, and whining to my mother about how Catherine was being rude to him. I don’t remember what she was being rude about, mind you, just that I didn’t like the way she talked to him. Catherine told me constantly that I was old and boring, and that my music sucked. While I was nearly always single and lonely, Catherine had a steady stream of boyfriends from the time she was 13. Instead of abating, our rivalry seemed to be heating up. On top of all that, I was deeply embarrassed by that I was jealous of someone who was six years younger than me.
This continued on for several years, until, sometime in my early twenties, we had a fight. Like, a big fight. I don’t even remember what it was about, I just remember yelling, even screaming at her. I was furious. Beyond furious. Somehow, having run out of things that actually had to do with what we were fighting about, I got around to the anger and jealousy that I’d been harbouring all these years.
“You don’t even like me,” I yelled at her. “Why do you even bother talking to me? You don’t have anything to talk to me about! You think you’re better than me! You think you’re going to do great things!”
At this point, Catherine burst into tears, which, if you knew her, you would know how highly unusual that is.
“What do you mean I don’t like you?” she wailed. “I love you! You’re my big sister! I look up to you for everything!”
That stopped me dead in my tracks. How could it possibly be that my sister, my destined-for-great-things, Queen-of-Pentacles sister could ever look up to me, failure that I was, for anything?
That night was a turning point in our relationship. We’ve been close ever since; she even lived with us for a few months this year. Now that she’s back living three hours away, I miss her, even though we talk all the time.
I hope she had a good birthday.
I hope she knows how proud I am of her.
I hope that this year she continues to do great things.
I hope that she had some candy today, in honour of St.Catherine.
Happy birthday, little sister.
p.s. Here is a recipe for St. Catherine’s Day Taffy, if you want to try making it yourself.