Folk tales and legends develop wings and fly far from their original site, which is eventually forgotten, or so I discovered after I became an oral storyteller and subsequently discovered that “our” story of Cinderella originated in China — which is why the tiny feet were so important.
The storytelling rule is that the teller has to ask permission to repeat it, and to credit the person from whom she heard the tale, even though she then adapts it to her own voice. So, in keeping with tradition, I heard the legend of the spiders from my niece, Elaine Louch, of Guelph, Ont., a craftswoman who had emailed a photo of her newest project — a Christmas spider. Of course I asked, and she responded with one version of the story. And that was enough to send me scrambling around the Internet, looking for the original source.
This legend has travelled the world. No one knows where the story was first told, and nobody knows how far it has travelled, but there are recorded versions from Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Finland, Scandinavia, and now, Canada. The central story is always the same. It’s just the little details that change.
It seems that, many years ago, a mother was preparing for Christmas. First, she had to make the house as clean as possible, so, as soon as the children were safely in bed she began to scrub and tidy and sweep. A colony of spiders had been living contentedly in a corner of the kitchen ceiling. When the adult spiders saw the broom coming, they rounded up the little ones and fled through a tiny hole into the safety of the attic.
When the house was finally cleaned to the mother’s standards, she had another job to do. Outside, propped against the house, was the fir tree she had cut earlier. After carefully shaking off the loose snow, she carried the little tree into the living room. She made a stand from her firewood, stood the tree up and began the joyful chore of decorating it.
Now, in one telling of the legend, the family was very poor and all the mother had in the way of decoration were a few nuts she had dyed and a star that she had made. In another, she had ample ornaments. However, in all versions, the woman was skilled at using what she had and, in the end, by the time she went to bed, the tree was beautiful and the mother knew her children would be happy.
The spiders, meanwhile, hadn’t been able to see much through their tiny escape hole into the attic, but they could hear all the unusual sounds below, and they decided to investigate as soon as they knew Mother was soundly asleep. But, as curious as they were, they remembered that broom, and they made their way down the wall very slowly and carefully.
The idea of a tree in the house excited them. They raced across the floor, over the stand, and up the trunk. Eager not to miss anything, they crawled up and down, out to the very tips of the branches and back again, checking out each ornament, and moving ever higher until they reached the star at the very top. Satisfied, they scurried back down and made their way to the safety of the attic.
However, as they had explored the tree, they had wrapped it in spider webs.
Who knows what happened next? Some say it was the first rays of the Christmas Day sun. Some say it was Father Christmas, arriving with gifts for the children and realizing that Mother would be disappointed to see her handiwork hidden under spider webs. Some in North America would claim it was Santa Claus. Not so, say others. It was the Christ Child himself, who loves all creatures and was pleased with the spiders’ work, but loves us humans, too, and wanted mother and the children to be happy.
Believe what you will, but someone or something gently touched that tree, and, immediately, the spider webs were transformed into shimmering strands of silver and gold.
And that is why we still adorn our Christmas trees with tinsel, and why every Christmas tree, as mine will this year, should have its own spider.
Eyolfson Cadham is an award-winning columnist and freelance journalist who moved from Montreal to Foam Lake in 1992. She is a member of Saskatchewan Writers Guild and is an oral storyteller who has professional status with Storytellers of Canada.