by Orysia Paszczak Tracz

A spider for Christmas?

What says Christmas more than a spider and its spiderweb? Well, considering that Ukrainian Christmas and New Year traditions include those memorable and special seasonal symbols such as poppy seeds, hemp oil, garlic, hay, wheat stalks, goats, and even cross-dressing, hey, why not include the "pavuk" - the spider?

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.

The yalynka, originally based on tree worship in early Germany, became a separate Christmas tradition, decorated with home-made paper and metallic ornaments, and apples, walnuts, candies and candles. Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky even wrote a delightful children's story about going to cut down the tree, called "Yalynka." A short 16-minute film based on this story was produced and directed in Canada in 1975 by George Mendeluk (Faroun Films, Montreal). The cast included Mike Mazurki and filmmaker Linda Sorensen.

The paper or wire in "pavuchky" (little spiders) and spider webs are just one example of the traditional ornaments for the tree. The gift shop of The Ukrainian Museum in New York sells pavuchky and a booklet on traditional ornaments, and its Christmas workshops teach how to make them (see

A book on international Christmas ornaments includes the Ukrainian pavuchok and the gilded walnut: "Christmas Crafts from around the World (Kids Can Do It)" by Judy Ann Sadler, illustrated by June Bradford (Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2003. ISBN 1-55337-428-2 [paper], ISBN 1-55337-427-4 [cloth]).

A few children's books have the Ukrainian Christmas spider and web story as their theme: "Spider's Gift: A Ukrainian Christmas Story," by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Katya Krenina (Holiday House, 2007. ISBN: 0823417433) tells the basic story; "Starre Baba and the Christmas Spider: A Ukrainian Story," by Ina C. Shoonover (XLibris, 2007. ISBN: 1-4134-3822-9) is a historical novel set in Ukraine during the Holodomor. (Why "starre" instead of "stara" baba?)

The award-winning and now classic "Silver Threads" by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, with illustrations by Michael Martchenko, also combines history and the spider tale. This story is set in Canada just before and during World War I, and tells the story of an immigrant family and its travails during the internment of "enemy aliens" by the Canadian government (originally published in Toronto: Viking, 1996; new edition, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004. ISBN 1550419013 [cloth], 155041903X [paper]).

While the story of the spider and its web on the yalynka probably arrived from Germany along with the Christmas tree, 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 not a good thing to kill a spider - you will "call evil upon yourself." The pavuk was considered the center of the universe, with the spiderweb contributing to the world's creation.

Yevhen Onatskyi gives examples of the pre-Christian "koliadky" (Christmas carols) about spiders and spiderwebs: "Oy, yak to bulo z pochatku svitu, Yak shche ne bulo neba ni zemli? Oy no, na mori odna pavutynka, na tii pavutyntsi try tovaryshi - Yeden tovarysh - yasne sonenko, Druhyi tovarysh - yasnyi misiachenko, Tretiy tovarysh - dribnyi doschenko." (Oh, how was it at the beginning of the world, when there still was no heaven nor earth? Oh, only on the sea there was one spiderweb, and there were three friends on this spiderweb: one friend - the bright sun, the second friend - the bright moon, the third friend - the light rain.)

Another ancient koliadka: "Oy, yak to bulo z pochaku svitu, oy yak ne bulo sviatoyi zemli? Oy, na mori pavutynonka. Oy, tam bratonky radiat: Yak by nam brate, svit obsnuvaty. Pustysia brate, v hlyboki vody, todi my brate svit obsnuyemo, Svit obsnuyemo i nasytymo, Svit nasytymo I napovnymo." (Oh, how was it at the beginning of the world, when there was no sacred land? Oh, there was a spiderweb on the sea. Oh, there the brothers were seeking council: Brother, how should we surround the earth with a web? Brother, dive into the deep waters. Then, brother, we will spin a web around the world, we will surround the world with a web and feed it, we will feed it and fill it up/populate it.)

A ritual wedding song from Bukovyna sings: "Dva pavuky zemliu stochyly, dva bratchyky do mista khodyly." (Two spiders tumbled or rolled out the earth, and two brothers went to town).

There are two sides to most symbols - the positive and negative. In ancient times, the spiders, along with amphibians such as snakes and frogs, were considered benevolent creatures, while at the same time having their faults. The spider sucks the life out of his prey, and can be considered creatively sterile and unproductive, since the web is so fragile and easily destroyed. However, in her epic "Robert Bruce," Lesia Ukrainka depicts the spider as an inspiration for persistence and tenacity. A spiderweb protects from the "unclean spirit" (i.e., evil) - as it did the Holy Family during their flight. And in folk medicine, a spiderweb is used to stem bloodflow, as it contains a natural coagulant.

The spider and spiderweb motifs appear in Ukrainian folk art in many guises - on pysanky, in embroidery, weaving and other arts. As often happens, not always are they immediately recognizable as a spider or web, often being quite abstract. Other designs, woven of straw, not necessarily appearing spider-like, are also called pavuchky. These are hung from the ceiling near the pokuttia [the ceremonial corner of the home] as talismans, protecting from evil spirits. Interestingly - and obviously, once you think of it - a chandelier, in Ukrainian, is called a pavuk. This especially applies to the hand-carved wooden ones hanging in the old Hutsul and Boiko churches.

So as you hang your traditional and contemporary ornaments on your yalynka, you can think of the positive purpose of including at least one pavuchok among all the other lovely and sentimental decorations. Just in case.

* * *

My thanks to Larisa Schulechko Scates of Houston for the inspiration for this article.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 31, 2006, No. 53, Vol. LXXIV

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