If you celebrate Christmas, you likely have annual traditions when it comes to decorating your Christmas tree. There are many accessories we like to decorate our trees with, but one of the most common decorations is tinsel. Long, shiny, and fun, tinsel is a great way to add a flash of color and sparkle to any Christmas tree. But do you know why tinsel is such a common Christmas tree decoration in the first place? Believe it or not, you can actually thank the Christmas spider for this festive decor.
A Ukrainian spider web ornament from the Christmas around the World 2007 exhibit of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (Erika Smith / CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Christmas What?
While most of us only associate spiders with Halloween and other spooky events, spiders were actually once associated with Christmas. The Legend of the Christmas Spider is a famous folktale that originated in Europe somewhere around Germany and Ukraine. Although there isn’t a clear time of origin, it is believed that the celebration of the Christmas spider started sometime in the last few hundred years. After the legend spread, it is said that Europeans started to decorate their trees with fake spider webs before turning to tinsel.
The word tinsel actually has origins in the 16th century, where it arose from the Anglo-French verb tenceler. Tenceler, in its original form, means ‘to sparkle.’ Early forms of tinsel were actually quite dangerous for people, although they didn’t know it at the time. Lots of early tinsel was made of lead, though this eventually stopped due to safety concerns. Instead, plastic started being used to produce the shiny tinsel we know and love today.
Left: Original lametta, silver foil with tin and lead (Jüppsche / CC BY SA 3.0 ); Right: A Christmas tree decorated with dangling strands of lametta. ( Public Domain )
The Legend of the Christmas Spider
According to the legend, there was once a poor widow who lived with her children in a small hut. The widow was hardworking, but barely made enough to provide for her children’s needs. One year, a pine cone fell on the floor of their hut and started to grow into a pine tree. The children cared for the tree all year, hoping that it would grow large enough in time for Christmas.
Although the tree did grow large enough by Christmas, the widow was too poor to afford decorations for the tree. The children went to bed disappointed, wishing they had enough money to get some decorations this Christmas. The spiders living in the home, witnessing this sad scene, decide to help the widow and her children by decorating the tree with long, shiny spider webs.
When the children woke up in the morning, they were overjoyed to see the tree decorated with shiny webs. The sun shone through the window onto the webs, making them shimmer in the light until they turned into silver and gold. The widow used the silver and gold to provide for her children, and they were never impoverished again.
According to the Christmas Spider legend, the creatures wove their webs in the tree, and the sunlight transformed the webs into real silver and gold. ( Public Domain )
Spinning Spider Webs into Gold is Cooler than Turning Water into Wine
While this is the basic story, the story has taken a few different twists in alternative versions. The most common change to the story is that of a family decorating the tree for Santa to see when he brings them gifts. Once the tree is decorated and the family is in bed, the spiders in the home wish to see the decorations but struggle to see them from the floor. They decide to climb up the trunk of the tree and into the branches to see the beautiful decorations up close, leaving a collection of webs all over it. In religious households, they would claim the tree was decorated for baby Jesus , rather than for Santa.
When the guest arrives (whether Santa or Jesus), they see the webs and are impressed by the spiders’ work. Though they are humbled by the sight before them, they also recognize that the family may be upset by the webs when they wake in the morning. To appease everyone, the guest turns the webs into real silver and gold.
Spiders: Misunderstood Good Luck Charms
Though the true origin of the Christmas spider legend is not proven, some historians believe it likely stemmed from an old European belief that spiders bring good luck. The only region that did not follow this superstition was Germany, though they considered only black spiders not to be bringers of good luck.
Europeans also had a superstition that destroying a spider’s web before the spider is out of the way brings bad luck, so this correlation between spiders and luck is not new. This could have been the cause of the webs being turned to silver and gold, rather than being torn down. However, it is unclear which came first: did the superstitions arise from the legend, or did the legend arise from the superstitions?
Regardless of the order they arose in, some Europeans (predominantly Ukrainians) still decorate their trees with spider ornaments. Usually, these ornaments are made of glass beads and are considered beautiful art pieces representing the legend of the Christmas spider. It is believed that the spider ornament will bring you good luck, just like the spiders brought luck to the widow and her children. Just like Christmas tree toppers, all spider ornaments are unique, so you can pick the one you think is the luckiest for your tree.
There are numerous adorable and festive Christmas spider ornaments available for sale online and in stores (Kate Renkes / CC BY 2.0 )
If you’re looking for some new Christmas decorations this year, consider getting yourself some tinsel and a spider ornament. You never know – perhaps they really will bring you good luck!
Top image: The Legend of the Christmas Spider is a folktale that dates back hundreds of years from German and Ukrainian origin. Source: VideoCorpus / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh