Blue Ridge Naturalist: The Legend of the Christmas Spider

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© Marlene A. Condon

A spider web is often eaten and rebuilt by the spider every day. By eating the web, the spider recycles the proteins that comprise the silk. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)
A spider web is often eaten and rebuilt by the spider every day. By eating the web, the spider recycles the proteins that comprise the silk. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

One summer I received a crafts catalog that had a wonderful little Christmas story in it that was called the “Legend of the Christmas Spider.” (Yes, Christmas goods are sold rather early sometimes!) I was not familiar with this tale, but I love it so much that I want to share it with you.

(Apparently there are various versions of this European folk tale. The following narrative is paraphrased from the catalog, the name of which I have, unfortunately, forgotten.)

A long time ago in Germany a mother was busily cleaning her house for Christmas. The spiders in the house fled upstairs to the attic to escape her broom. When the house became quiet, the spiders slowly crept downstairs for a peek.

Oh! What a beautiful tree they saw! In their excitement they scurried up the trunk of the tree and out along each branch. They were filled with happiness as they climbed amongst the glittering beauty. But alas! By the time they were through climbing, the tree was completely shrouded in their dusty gray spider webbing.

When Santa Claus came with gifts for the children and saw the tree covered with spider webs, he smiled as he saw how happy the spiders were. But Santa knew how heartbroken the mother would be if she saw her wonderfully decorated Christmas tree covered with dusty webs. So Santa turned the webs into silver and gold.

The tree sparkled and shimmered and was even more beautiful than before. And that is why we have tinsel on our tree, and why every tree should have a Christmas spider in its branches.

I guess I am so taken with this story not only because I have always loved Christmas trees and children’s stories, but especially because this story is based upon nature. The thought that tinsel is the result of spider webs on the tree combines my love of nature with my love of Christmas.

Unfortunately for those of us who would not mind living in some of these fairy-tale worlds, spiders are not actually responsible for the tinsel we see on our present-day Christmas trees. But there is a group of these arachnids that are referred to as “cobweb spiders.”

Cobweb spiders are also known as “orb weavers.” There are more than 2,500 species of these kinds of spiders in the world, and they are responsible for most of the webs that we see in our gardens. They vary in shape and size, with some spiders having a body only a fraction of an inch long while others have a body that is more than inch in length.

A cobweb spider is one of the few kinds of animals that build traps to catch prey. The spider starts by making a framework of strong non-sticky threads that it firmly attaches to surrounding plants or other structures (such as might be found around your house). The spider adds spokes that radiate from the center of the framework so that at this stage the web is similar to a bicycle wheel (but it’s not necessarily round).

The spider then spins a non-sticky thread that it attaches to each “spoke” as it travels a circular path outwards away from the center of the web. Finally, it works its way back to the center, using the non-sticky spiral as a guide to lay strands of sticky silk that will catch a meal for the spider to eat.

These two types of silk come from glands at the end of a cobweb spider’s body. When the silk first comes out of the spinnerets (small structures that have nozzle-like openings), it is in liquid form. One type of silk hardens into the extremely tough, non-adhesive thread, while the type used for the center spiral of the web is sticky.

A cobweb spider has claw-like structures on each of its eight feet that help it to hold onto the dry lines of its web. Yes, a cobweb spider must avoid the spirals of silk that are sticky, or it can get caught just like its prey!

When the spider has finished building its web, it either waits at the center of the web or hides nearby (depending upon what species it is). The spider makes a “signal” thread through which it can sense any disturbance to the web. If prey gets caught in the sticky part of the web, the spider will rush over to it, bite it, and wrap it in strands of silk so that the prey cannot escape.

So if spiders and Santa Claus are not responsible for our Christmas tinsel, who is? The glittering tinsel that we call “Icicles” was first made and sold in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1878. Thin strips of silver foil were designed to “drip” like icicles from decorated Christmas trees. Americans immediately fell in love with this novelty, but the users quickly split into two camps: the “hangers” and the “throwers.” (Being a “neatnik,” I am a hanger.)

Unfortunately, cigarette smoke caused the silver to tarnish by the time the tree was taken down, making the icicles black and unusable for the next year. So Americans developed lead-foil icicles, which became popular in the 1920s and remained popular until the 1960s. At that time the United States government was concerned about lead poisoning to children who might swallow the decoration, so it forced manufacturers to stop using lead.

Aluminum foil had been tried during World War II, but it did not drape well over the branches. Luckily for those of us who like tinsel, by this time manufacturers had lightweight silver-colored Mylar (a type of polyester) that they could use.

Another decoration for the Christmas tree also came from Germany in about 1880. Called “angel’s hair,” the Germans used it as a rope garland, but Americans began to spread out the strands, covering the entire tree and giving it a cobweb effect.

So here we are, back to the spiders and their webbing. The reason that webs can last a long time is because the silk is coated with a layer of antibiotic that wards off bacterial decay.

Although cobwebs (webs that are dusty because they are no longer used by a spider) appear untidy and usually embarrass the proud homeowner, they have served a very useful purpose. Indoor webs catch many of the critters wandering around inside homes so that you only need to deal with their remains in the web—no need for poisonous pesticides!

I hope that the next time that you have to wipe up a dusty web, you will not think badly of the spider that made it.

Merry Christmas and very Happy Holidays to everyone!

 

 

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