A Spider for Christmas?

  • A Spider for Christmas?
Issue 85, December 2015.

A Spider for Christmas?

Fastidious housewives usually shoo spiders and their webs from the corners of the house, or from their hiding places in furniture. But in Ukraine, what says Christmas more than a spider and its spider web? Well, considering that Ukrainian holiday traditions include such memorable and special seasonal symbols as poppy seeds, garlic, stalks of wheat, and even cross-dressing (for special travelling Christmas plays called Vertep) – why not include the “pavuk” (spider).

How the Spider Gave Us Tinsel

The spider-web-covered Yalynka (Christmas tree) is now a standard Ukrainian Christmas story. Like all good folktales, it comes in many versions and has appeared in a number of contemporary children’s books. Basically, the story goes that there lived a poor, widow cramped in a hut with her children. One day, a pine cone dropped and started growing outside the hut. The children tended to it lovingly until it grew into an extravagant tree. Knowing they did not have money to decorate the tree for Christmas, the family accepted the fact and went to sleep. Overnight, spiders heard the children crying and spun intricate webs on the tree. In the light of the morning, the threads shone like silver and gold and made the tree exceedingly beautiful. To this day, Ukrainians decorate their trees with fake spider webs to celebrate this Christmas miracle – which explains the tradition of tinsel on the Christmas tree.

Different details and elaborate embellishments of the story all depend on the teller and the tale. Another version has the Holy Family hiding in a cave during their flight to Egypt. The benevolent spiders spin webs to cover the entrance to the cave. When Herod’s soldiers pass by, they don’t bother to search the cave as it obviously hasn’t been disturbed in quite some time – and the Holy Family is safe.

From Ukraine’s Wheat Sheaf to Germany’s Christmas Tree

Prior to the arrival of the Christmas tree from Germany in the 19th-Century, the Ukrainian didukh (sheaf of wheat) was the symbol most associated with the winter holiday season. The spirits of ancestors came into the home in the form of the didukh during the holy days, as it was they that lived in the grain in the fields that led to such a beautiful harvest.

While the didukh is symbolic, the yalynka can be considered as more decorative. Originally based on tree worship in early Germany, the yalynka over time morphed into a separate Christmas tradition. Trees were often ornately decorated with all kinds of unique and creative materials, like home-made paper and metallic ornaments, apples, walnuts, candies, and candles. Pavuchky (little spiders), made of paper or wire, and their webs (tinsel) are other examples of traditional tree ornaments.

The Spider: A Traditional Ukrainian Symbol

While the story of the spider and its web on the yalynka probably arrived from Germany along with the Christmas tree itself, the pavuk as a special symbol is well-established in Ukraine. The arachnid has been held in high esteem since prehistoric times. In many cultures, it is frowned upon to kill a spider; “you will bring rain” or “you will call evil upon yourself” are well known in different areas of the world. The pavuk is often considered to be the centre of the universe, with its spider web contributing to the creation of the world. Spider and spider web motifs appear in Ukrainian folk art in many guises – on pysanky (Ukrainian Easter Eggs), embroidery, weaving, and other arts. These too are known as pavuchky (little spiders). Some Ukrainians will even hang a pavuchky woven of straw in the ceremonial corner of the home as a talisman, to protect from evil spirits. Interestingly, a chandelier in Ukrainian is called a pavuk – especially the hand-carved wooden ones found in old Hutsul and Boyko churches.

So, as you hang your traditional and contemporary ornaments on your very own yalynka, you might now want to add a touch of Ukrainian folklore to your tree in the form of at least one small pavuchok. You know, just in case.