Monday 4 December 2023

Recycling A Christmas Folktale, by Pippa Goodhart

            There is a folktale Christmas story that’s well known in the Ukraine and Russia, Germany, Poland, Norway, Denmark and Finland, but was new to me when I met it as a bookseller in the 1980s.




            This The Cobweb Christmas version of the story has old German Tante trying to make her home clean for Christmas, sweeping out the spiders. She brings a tree in, and decorates it with cookies for the local children to have on Christmas Eve before Christkindel comes in the night to fill the toes of their shoes. She’s asleep when Christkindel passes by and sees spiderswanting to go in and see the special tree. He opens the door to let them scuttle in.


The spiders cover Tante’s tree in webs, but Christkindel touches the webs and turns them all to gold and silver; a reward for Tante’s kindness to the children. 



            That book is no longer in print, but there are other versions of this story that take the story in quite different directions. The Spider Who Saved Christmas by Raymond Arroyo has a golden back spider weaving a great veil of web over the entrance to a cave where Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus hide as they flee from King Herod. As baby boys are slaughtered outside the cave by Roman soldiers ‘with blood streaked swords’, Jesus is saved because the sunlit sparkling web hides the Holy family from the soldiers. Other versions combine those ideas by having Christ himself visiting a poor home and blessing cobwebs on trees, giving wealth. That idea of spider silk turned into gold and silver is, apparently, is the origin of tinsel on Christmas trees.

            Stories in which spiders bring good luck go further back to pre-Christian times. And of course Christmas trees originated in more pagan ideas, only becoming part of our familiar Christmas traditions from C19th. This is a story adapted and adopted countless times over time and space. And now I’ve written my version of it. 

            Old Bear in my Christmas Cobwebs story is really me at heart, remembering how magical Christmas was as a child. We never saw the decorated tree with lights switched on until Christmas morning, and even then only after breakfast had been eaten, the kitchen floor swept, and we all stood in height order to open the door … and, da daa! There it was. 


Like me, Old Bear is the one preparing a tree and decorating it for others now. She wants it all to be magical for the friends she invites. But she doesn’t want the spiders making her house untidy. 

Not wanting to miss out, as Old Bear sleeps, the spiders come to look at the decorated tree. ‘In the moonlight, they span and swung and spiddled, scuttling and exploring and weaving and winding wondrous webs.’ So, when Old Bear wakes up and looks at her tree, its ‘drippily draped in droopy grey cobwebs.’ Her friends are on their way, and she’s not happy …

… But you can easily guess what’s going to happen when the sun comes out! Old Bear gets some surprise Christmas magic after all, and thanks her spiddly spider friends. 


Ema Malyauka from the Netherlands has brought Christmas Cobwebs to wonderful visual life, and I love the feeling of stories linking countries and peoples at Christmas. The spiders and spider web Christmas tree decorations that have been traditional in Ukraine for so long, are beginning to appear in other Christmas trees, too, including the one in Nick Sharratt and my new You Choose Christmas book.

How many other folktales can you spot being referenced in the decorations on this tree?



Wishing you all some Christmas magic, maybe from where you least expect it! 






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Natascha Biebow said...

Love this, Pippa! As a child, I came down on Christmas Eve morning and the angels - aka my parents - had decorated the tree German style with ornaments, candles, and a shiny kind of tinsel found in Germany (lameta) which is thin and hangs down. It glistened and made everything silver and filled me with awe. I never knew this about the spiders. A bit of Christmas magic!