Many cultures have their own unique Christmas ornaments… When I was little, my folks had a straw goat ornament from Finland, a “Joulupukki“, or “Yule Goat”, a representation of the harvest season’s spirit – something that made an appearance when folks celebrated the return of the light. They also had a clay Christmas Pig ornament from Germany as well – representing the feast that poorer folks would make, slaughtering their one pig for the midwinter festivities.
Both goats and pigs feature in winter solstice holiday traditions all the way back to pagan times. However, the Christmas Spider, a decoration and legend more common in Eastern Europe, has a relatively recent origin.
There are a number of tales explaining why spiders deserve a place on our Christmas trees, but here are two of my favorites.
As we’ve all heard tell, Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem, perhaps in a cave. Shortly thereafter, Mary & Joseph fled to Africa with the Christchild, to escape the soldiers of King Herod. In their flight, it is rumored that they hid in caves to avoid the pursuing soldiers. In one case, the soldiers are said to have been close on their heels… and the holy family was saved by spiders, who swiftly covered the entrance of their cave with webs. When the soldier sent to scout their cave saw the webs, he decided that nothing had been in that particular cave recently, there was no need to waste time checking it. In recognition of those ancient Israeli spiders’ good deed, some people place spider ornaments on their Christmas trees… and the tale has even made its way to the pages of a children’s book.
Sometime thereafter, in the not-so-distant past, somewhere in the Ukraine, a family was preparing for the winter holidays. They cleaned the house in preparation for decorating it. Of course, being thoughtful people (and not wanting bad luck) they made sure to not harm spiders when they removed their webs. Once that was taken care of, they put their decorations up, and took a well-deserved rest.
Once all the humans had all gone to sleep, the spiders scurried out from their hiding places. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the spider egg sacs brought in on the tree hatched in the warm house. Regardless of how the spiders got there, they began to investigate the tree.
The spiders marveled at its decorations – so different from the trees outside! In an attempt to contribute, the spiders coated it in their webs… Unfortunately, many humans don’t think spiderwebs make good decorations. Later on in the night “Дід Мороз” – Father Frost appeared (or Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, or the Christ Child… there are many variant tales). Regardless of who the holiday wonderworker was, he saw what the spiders had done, and turned all their webs into skeins of silver and gold! And thus the very first tinsel was created. Born of spiders’ desire to contribute to the winter celebration.
Here are some instructions if you’d like to make a Christmas Spider of beads and wire for your own family’s tree, after the Ukrainian tradition. As for me, my Christmas spiders, my “pavuchky” – little spiders, are origami, folded from bright foil, and hidden among the branches.
2 thoughts on “The Christmas Spider, an Eastern European Legend”
When all was still, spiders crept out from the corners and crevices of the hut to see the tree the children had taken such care of. Determined that the tree should not remain bare, the spiders spent all night weaving delicate webs across the branches. In the morning, the children threw open the shutters to see their tree. As the sunlight hit the branches, the webs turned to strands of gold and silver, creating a stunningly decorated Christmas tree. From that point on, the widow and her children never wanted for anything.
Not only do spiders get special protection during the holidays, they also get an honored place in Christmas decor. Often, Ukrainians who put up a Christmas tree include small spider ornaments and tinsel to represent spider webs. So on the Second Day of Imported Christmas we made tiny beaded pavuchky (little spiders) for our tree.