Myths & Folklore

The Christmas Spider, an Eastern European Legend

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.

Yule Goat

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.

Christmas Pig

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.

One of this year’s origami Christmas Spiders.

Community, Plants

Remnants of an Industry

Walking the place in November’s fresh snow, I notice the remnants of an industry – stumps that were left to grow a second, third or fourth Christmas tree.  The phrase was “stump culture” and the practice fit in with production of wild Douglas Fir Christmas trees.  By cutting high and leaving branches on the stump, it took less time to grow the next tree.  Whether the stump kept superior genetics, or had a better microenvironment for producing Christmas trees, stump culture worked.  The next tree had the benefit of a pre-existing root system, and, if it looked like it was growing too fast, could be slowed by peeling a bit of bark on two sides.

As the photographs show, it has been a long time since Christmas trees were harvested – the stumps now have 30’ tall trees growing where the Christmas trees weren’t harvested.  The stumps, left by my father and grandfather (and a few by me) stand as a monument to a vanished industry.

I entered the Christmas tree industry at age ten – dragging the trees from where Dad cut them to the trail where we would load them on the old Chevy pickup.  Unloading them along another old road, and sorting stacks by sizes – deuces, fours, sixes, eights, tens and twelves.  Eight deuces made a bale, six fours, four sixes, three eights . . . later I learned to tie, building my sawhorses with guides for the trees, wrapping the twine and pulling the figure eight knot tight, then cutting the butts straight with the smallest one hand crosscut.  If I’m remembering correctly, I made 10 cents per bale for tying them.  Good pay – ideally fours and sixes, and it wasn’t hard to tie 20 bales an hour.  Cutting trees was a good business for a teenager – an axe and an old pickup, and a handshake deal where the landowner got half and you were in business.  A hundred trees a day on weekends, cutting and dragging.  Memory brings back pay at $2.50 to $3.00 per bale, plus the dime for tying.  The landowner didn’t get half of the dime.

Tying trees was the intense season – the load had to go out by Thanksgiving.  Cutting started after the first hard frost, so usually around October – tying trees probably in mid-November, and the loads of Christmas trees leaving the valley on Thanksgiving, or the following Friday. 

And now, the stumps are left, showing the remnants of an industry long gone.