A Spidery Christmas

Ukrainian Christmas ornament. Image: Wikipedia

Monday’s spider post prompted Root Simple pal and patron Michael W. to tip me off to a the unlikely Ukrainian combination of spiders and Christmas. In an article in the Ukrainian Weekly Orysia Paszczak Tracz explains,

The spider-web-covered “yalynka” (Christmas tree) is now a standard Ukrainian Christmas story. It comes in many versions, and has appeared in a number of contemporary children’s books. Basically, a poor family has nothing with which to decorate their yalynka and, hearing this, a spider overnight spins its web all over the tree, making the spiderweb sparkle and glitter in the morning sunlight. This explains the tradition of tinsel on the Christmas tree.

The various embellishments of the story depend upon 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 and cover the whole entrance to the cave. When Herod’s soldiers pass by, they do not bother searching the cave, because obviously it has not been disturbed in a long time – and the Holy Family is safe.

Now, a few things need to be clarified. First of all, the custom of the Christmas tree arrived in Ukraine from Germany in the 19th century. It became a supplement to the Ukrainian “didukh,” the sheaf of wheat and other best grains, which symbolizes Ukrainian Christmas. The spirits of the ancestors come into the home in the didukh for the holy days. They had lived in the fields in the grain helping the bountiful harvest. The didukh is symbolic, the yalynka is decorative.

Here’s what a didukh looks like:

Image: Wikipedia

Being both a fan of spiders and wheat I can only hope that Ukrainian Christmas traditions will make their way west.

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  1. I remember reading a version in a children’s magazine when I was little. In that version, there was an old lady who lived all alone and was rather poor. She couldn’t see well, so she never really cleaned out the corners of her little house, so she never disturbed the webs built there. She also talked nicely to the spiders she saw, as she was very friendly and didn’t mind them a bit. Christmas eve, she brought home a scrawny, raggedy-looking little tree. She put up the few, well-worn, ornaments she had, ate the pitiful amount of food she had left, and went to bed.
    The spiders got together and talked. They agreed the old lady had treated them very well all this time, and they wanted to show their appreciation with some sort of Christmas present. One spider suggested gift-wrapping a fly, as they knew she needed food, but another spider noted that they’d never seen her eat flies before. They finally decided to decorate her tree with their webs. They worked all night spinning and weaving their most ornamental webs. I think head spider set herself in the middle of the web-ornament at the top of the tree.
    As dawn broke, dew formed on the webs, and a little ray of sunshine came through the broken window shutters and lit up the shiny webs, making it glow and glisten. The old lady woke up about this time and went to make her morning tea. She saw the tree and exclaimed something about Christmas miracles.

    I’ve had a glittery spider ornament for my tree for something like 30 years now. I rarely have a tree anymore, but I still have the spider web.

  2. What a surprise to read this here! I knew Orysia Tracz in passing, and she published a collection of her writings on Ukrainian Christmas traditions in a book called First Star I See Tonight (which includes the article referenced here).

    Many Ukrainians settled where I grew up in Canada, including my grandparents, and I was raised with Ukrainian customs. We didn’t integrate spiders into our celebrations (I would say that’s one of the more uncommon aspects of Christmas), but wheat is definitely central. Ukrainian traditions and symbols are agricultural in origin, going back thousands of years and incorporating beliefs about the natural world. These practices were later adopted by the church – they tried for a long time to eradicate anything they deemed pagan and primitive, but ultimately didn’t succeed. The beliefs were just too ancient and deeply engrained.

    Ukrainian communities throughout the West – in the US, Canada and Australia, among other places – have kept these customs alive. It’s rather incredible considering how old these traditions are and the geographic area over which they span. Every family has their own variations, but Ukrainian Christmas has been observed in the West for some time!

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