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.

Plants

Festive Parasites

Mistletoe is a classic Christmas decoration, which has always struck me as rather odd, considering that all varieties of mistletoe are parasitic plants. Depending on how bad the infestation is, mistletoe is quite capable of killing its host plants.

There are many types of mistletoe (117 species globally, 5 species of dwarf mistletoe are common in Montana). While mistletoe have many different host plants, around here our mistletoe varieties tend to be specialists on conifers – I’ve spotted some local Western Dwarf Mistletoe, generally found on Ponderosa Pines.

As for why we associate mistletoe plants with kissing?
They’ve been plants of spiritual importance for quite some time. And with that come many attempts at medicine… don’t try these at home, folks.

It’s easy to see why folks thought mistletoe might help fertility, though – Europe’s common mistletoe is an evergreen plant. It’s easy to find flourishing, clearly healthy and alive, even when all the deciduous trees are leafless. And think of how much more special the mistletoe would be thought, if it came from a type of tree held to be sacred, such as an Oak or an Ash.

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder claimed that Druids used mistletoe gathered from sacred oak trees in their rituals, though there’s little enough proof of that… it’s a long time back, the druids didn’t keep written records, and Pliny isn’t without error. Similarly, in northern Japan, the Ainu people used mistletoe gathered from their sacred willow trees to try to encourage fertility, as well as cure ailments.

In the great Roman epic, the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas is told to carry a golden branch of mistletoe with him on his journey to the underworld, so that he’ll be allowed to return to the surface world again. When there, he speaks with the dead, notably his father, and hears stories of how the Caesars will be his descendants.

However, it’s most likely that mistletoe’s connections to our holiday festivities come out of its ties to Norse mythology.

There’s a legend that the queen of the Norse gods, Frigga, went through all the world, making everything promise that it would not hurt her son, Baldr. You see, Baldr had recently begun to have visions of his death, and it is said that even gods find death a concerning prospect.

Now Baldr was a god of summer, beauty, and peace – best loved of all the gods. All the world pledged their love for Baldr. Stout oak and ash trees promised that their wood would never harm Baldr, stone and metal, beast and people alike. All pledged that they would not harm Baldr.

Loki, troublemaker of the gods, disguised himself as an old woman, and coaxed Frigga until she revealed the one thing she didn’t ask this of – mistletoe. She thought it too young, too weak a plant to harm Baldr, and hadn’t worried about asking it.

After hearing this, Loki journeyed east from Asgard, home of the gods, until he came to the forests where mistletoe grew. There he found mistletoe, and taking a particularly healthy plant, fashioned it into a throwing dart, and came back to the gathered gods celebrating Baldr’s invulnerability.

To test Baldr’s invulnerability, the gods held a celebration, and tried to harm Baldr with various weapons, lightly at first, then with more grievous and more grievous attacks. They delighted when nothing could harm Baldr, and believed that he had successfully cheated his visions of death.

At the outskirts of the gathering stood Hodr, Baldr’s blind half-brother. Another god of the seasons, Hodr was a god of winter, and surviving dark and harsh times. Loki asked Hodr why he wasn’t joining in the celebrations, and Hodr replied that he didn’t have a weapon to use against Baldr, and even if he did, he couldn’t see to use it properly. Loki offered to help Hodr join in the fun, gave him the dart of mistletoe to throw, and even helped guide his hand… When Baldr was struck, and mortally wounded, Loki made himself scarce, leaving poor Hodr to be executed for the murder of his brother.

The tale runs on, but the gist is that the Norse gods were unable to retrieve Baldr from the underworld. His mother, Frigga, wept, and her tears became the mistletoe berries. As Frigga was a goddess of love, marriage, motherhood and all things associated, mistletoe berries gained importance in treating infertility…

Not that I’d suggest you try to do so. Most mistletoe varieties are somewhat toxic.