Some animals are enshrined as Christmas icons, like reindeer, partridges and polar bears. Spiders, on the other hand, are less widely associated with holiday cheer. To many people, the only times to celebrate spiders are Halloween and never.
That's not the case everywhere, though. While Americans don't typically include spiders in their canon of Christmas creatures, the arachnids are yuletide mainstays in some parts of the world, namely a swath of Europe from Ukraine to Germany.
This is largely due to the legend of the Christmas spider, a European folktale that offers a mythical backstory for tinsel on Christmas trees. And although the story itself is fictional, it still features an uncommonly fair portrayal of spiders as non-monsters. There are several versions, but the spiders generally range from benevolent to beneficial. And by encouraging people to symbolically embrace house spiders via spider-shaped ornaments, this tradition weaves a subtle message about coexistence that, as with many holiday fables, resonates well beyond Christmas.
A creature was stirring
Here's one succinct summary of the Ukrainian legend, according to a "Christmas Around the World" exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago:
"A poor family had no decorations for their Christmas tree, so while the children were sleeping, spiders spun webs of silver around its branches. When the family awoke Christmas morning, the tree was sparkling with silver webs."
Folklore evolves easily, and the legend of Christmas spiders has spun off into several variations over time. Most involve a poor family who can't afford decorations, and friendly spiders who step in to beautify their tannenbaum. Some versions give the spiders less credit for their artistry, suggesting it was Santa Claus, Father Christmas or even baby Jesus who came in later to turn the webs into silver or gold.
In one telling, a widow's financial woes are solved by spider webs and sunlight:
"The widow went to bed on Christmas Eve knowing that the tree would not be decorated. Early on Christmas morning, the woman was awakened by her children. 'Mother, mother, wake up and see the tree, it is beautiful!' The mother arose and saw that during the night a spider had spun a web around the tree. The youngest child opened the window to the first light of Christmas Day. As the shafts of the sun crept along the floor, it touched one of the threads of the spider web and instantly the web was changed into gold and silver. And from that day forward the widow never wanted for anything."
Regardless of whether they had help, however, the spiders are typically portrayed in a positive light. Their legend is said to have inspired some longstanding Christmas traditions, like silvery tinsel and spider ornaments on trees. The Christmas Around the World exhibit, for example, includes a tree with spider web ornaments "handmade using traditional Ukrainian embroidery patterns."
If you're interested in joining this tradition, Country Living magazine recently put together a list of Christmas spider ornaments you can buy online, and Pinterest is also predictably crawling with cool ideas for DIY versions.
Why does it matter if we see spiders as naughty or nice? It probably doesn't, unless arachnophobia leads to a senseless war against our eight-legged housemates. It's partly just a practical matter, since there's pretty much nothing we can do to prevent house spiders from sharing our homes — as they have for thousands of years.
"Some house spider species have been living indoors at least since the days of the Roman Empire, and are seldom to be found outside, even in their native countries," writes Rod Crawford, curator of arachnid collections at the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture in Seattle and noted debunker of spider myths. "They usually spend their entire life cycle in, on or under their native building."
Not only are house spiders basically inevitable, but they're also generally harmless, and even provide some valuable perks that many humans fail to appreciate. Similar to their outdoor cousins — which are known to help farmers by eating agricultural pests like aphids, moths and beetles — house spiders help us suppress indoor insect populations, and without the need for broad-spectrum insecticides.
"Spiders feed on common indoor pests, such as roaches, earwigs, mosquitoes, flies and clothes moths," explains a fact sheet by Bayer CropScience. "If left alone, spiders will consume most of the insects in your home, providing effective home pest control." That can help with the annoyance of indoor insects, and may even limit the spread of disease carried by insects like fleas, mosquitoes and cockroaches.
From scary to merry
A Caribbean jumping spider with festively fluorescent scales. (Photo: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/Flickr)
The Christmas spider story may not directly address these practical benefits, but it still promotes a refreshingly tolerant view of house spiders. And it also highlights another, more abstract benefit: the beauty and power of spider silk. Cobwebs can admittedly feel more like a curse than a blessing when you have to clean them out of corners and windowsills, but those areas would need to be periodically cleaned anyway — and removing a few cobwebs is a small price for free pest control.
Plus, when you're in a mindful mood, it can be meditative (and even entertaining) to just watch a house spider in her web for a while. She may not weave silver or gold for you, but she still has subtler gifts to offer. And if the Christmas spirit inspires you to show her mercy, Ukrainian legend suggests your kindness will be rewarded.
"To this day," the Museum of Science and Industry points out, "a spider web found in the home on Christmas is a sign of good luck."