The Ukrainian yalynka (Christmas tree) is of particular interest for Westerners, for its odd decorations often referred to as “creepy.” But the story behind the traditional spiders and spider webs that adorn the Ukrainian Christmas tree is one of hope and joy.
We observed Christmas traditions across several Eastern European countries since the beginning of the month. Today we stop in Ukraine to learn how to decorate a Christmas tree like a Ukrainian.Spiders and spider webs often decorate Ukrainian Christmas trees.Click To Tweet
Ukrainians celebrate the Holy Birth Saturday, January 7, 2017, according to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which follows the Julian calendar. On Christmas Eve, the dining table includes dishes like kutia, borshch, mushroom dumplings, varenyky, and holubtsi, as well as kolach, the traditional Christmas bread. Many families will have no less than 12 dishes to honor the 12 apostles, although other traditions suggest that each dish corresponds to a month of the passing year.
As fascinating as dining traditions are, the Christmas spider that decorates the yalynka makes for a more interesting story. According to the legend, a poor widow had a bare Christmas tree, and her children sobbed and cried at night, saddened by the perspective of an empty tree on Christmas day. The widow hung nuts and fruit on a tree outside the door of their home and prayed for joy and cheer for her children on Christmas Day. The spiders heard her prayers on Christmas Eve and decorated the tree overnight with beautiful webs, which glittered like tinsel in the morning sun. This is the legend that inspires many Ukrainians to decorate their trees with spider ornaments and webs. Ukrainians also believe that spiders bring good luck and good fortune in the new year.
Orysia Paszczak Tracz, well-known writer and specialist Ukrainian culture and ethnology, told of a second legend in her article in The Ukrainian Weekly:
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.
The spider (in Ukrainian pavuk) is central to many children’s stories, according to the aforementioned author. Spider and spiderweb motifs appear in Ukrainian folk art as well.
Feature image: Christmas spider, Ukrainian Christmas ornament, by MSI Chicago, via Wikimmedia Commons.