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Why is Mary Magdalene the patron saint of hairdressers and when was the first time she was assigned this role?

From Wikipedia:

Patronage

Apothecaries; Kawit, Cavite; Atrani, Italy; Casamicciola Terme, Ischia; contemplative life; converts; glove makers; hairdressers; penitent sinners; people ridiculed for their piety; perfumeries; pharmacists; reformed prostitutes; sexual temptation; tanners; women

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    Mary Magdalene is often identified as the sinful penitent woman in Luke 7:37-38 who wiped Jesus' feet with her hair. That's why she's the patron of penitents and perfumes; but also why she might have been the patron saint of hairdressers. However, the "when did this tradition start" part still stands, even if it's "when did this misconception originate?" Sorry. – Andrew Leach Oct 15 '14 at 21:31
  • Some activities may have multiple saints and some saints have multiple activities. Penitents and perfumes are at the top of Mary's list, but in some places I see an extended list that includes hairdressers (and glovemakers) – Clint Eastwood Oct 15 '14 at 21:38
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To answer the "when" question, the exact date is unknown (patron saint assignments were not decided by official decree, but rather were adopted by people over time), but the association dates back to at least the Middle Ages.

As alluded to by previous answers, there are two theories on "why" question.

Theory 1: anointing Jesus' feet

The first is that the association derives from the Gospel of Luke. Pope Gregory (reigned 590-604) popularized the idea that three women described in the Gospels - Mary Magdalene (Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1-19; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1-18), Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42), and the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus' feet (Luke 7:36-50) - were all the same person. (Later the story of the adulteress saved from stoning by Jesus [John 7:53-8:11] also came to be associated with Mary Magdalene.)

Because of this association, Mary was usually depicted as having long hair in medieval art. Naturally, a woman always depicted with long, flowing hair is a good choice for hairdressers to adopt as a patron saint.

Mary Magdalene kissing the feet of the crucified Jesus
A 14th century depiction of Mary Magdalene at the cross of Jesus

A medieval legend reinforces the idea that her hair had become to be seen as her key trait. In the legend, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus bring the Gospel to France. After spreading the Gospel, Mary retires to a cave to pursue a contemplative, solitary life. Over time, her clothes wear out but miraculous her hair grows to cover her entire body, preserving her modesty.

Six angels lift a praying Mary, who is covered in hair
Mary, covered in hair, being lifted up by angels

Theory 2: actual hairdresser

An alternate theory is that Mary Magdelene's actual profession was that of a hairdresser, or at least that she was associated with the profession from a very early date. There are two references in the Talmud to a Miriam megaddelah nashaia (Mary, the plaiter of women’s hair). While it is debated whether this Miriam (Mary) is actually the same person as Mary Magdelene, it does raise the interesting possibility that "Magdelena" does not refer to a place name, Magdala, as traditionally thought, but rather a profession, megaddelah. Since surnames weren't in use yet in the first century, people were often given nicknames to distinguish them from others with the same name. Such nicknames could refer to a place of origin, but could also refer to a profession (among other things), so the theory is at least plausible.

Certainly it would a funny coincidence if Mary's nickname just happened to resemble a word she later came associated with for completely unrelated reasons.

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The book Flower, the Story of the Nativity (p126-27), by Wayne E. Stahre, includes an interesting footnote in reference to this:

Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of hairdressers. The Talmud refers to a "medadela neshaya," which apparently means "women's hairdresser." The word "megadela"or "mgadla" has a phonetic connection to the name "Magdalene," and so Mary Magdalene may have thus been connected to hairdressers by the third century, when the Talmud was begun.

More analysis on this is available on oztorah.com, which also considers this connection a possibility but also suggests that Magdalene may refer to geography, not profession.

Similarly, Lightfoot's commentary on Matthew 27:56 offers the same two options:

Whence she was called Magdalene, doth not so plainly appear; whether from Magdala, a town on the lake of Gennesaret, or from the word which signifies a plaiting or curling of the hair, a thing usual with harlots.

Dates more specific than this ("third century" in the first quote) may be difficult to come by, but another possibility is that the connection became more common once Pope Gregory I connected Mary Magdalene to the anonymous sinner who anointed Jesus' feet with oil and then wiped them with her hair (see Luke 7:36-38 and Luke 8:1-3). The homily (XXXIII) in which he did this was delivered around AD 591.

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Probably because St. Mary Magdalene is thought to be the "woman," "a sinner" of Luke 7:37-38:

  1. And behold a woman that was in the city, a sinner, as she knew that he was set down in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster box of ointment:
  2. And standing behind beside his feet, she began to water his feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
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    Something a bit more authoritative than "probably" would be good... – Flimzy Oct 16 '14 at 16:00
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    What, are you suggesting that hairdressing is a sinful occupation? – curiousdannii Aug 4 '15 at 2:09
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    @curiousdannii That's a curious conclusion. There's something to the story about her wiping Jesus' feet with her hair. If this woman was Mary Magdalene, then she is forever associated with this act. – fredsbend Aug 4 '15 at 2:38
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    That said, this isn't a very good answer, but I would not be surprised if there is indeed a connection. – fredsbend Aug 4 '15 at 2:38
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    What you thought is correct - patron saints are adopted by people/professions over time, not assigned authoritatively... It's a weak answer not because it is wrong, but because it just makes a guess and doesn't back it with any sources. – ThaddeusB Aug 4 '15 at 4:48

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