Retold by Cardinale Montano for America Daily- A Ukrainian Folktale

In many houses on Christmas Day, you will see shining silver tinsel draped on the branches of Christmas trees. Have you ever wondered where the idea of tinsel came from? Like so many other traditions, tinsel also has its story. Today we will share with you one of these which took place in Ukraine, many, many, years ago.

In a clearing at the outskirts of a little village, long ago in a corner of Eastern Europe, sat a little hut. So small it was that it could easily be missed by travelers passing on the narrow road that left the village and wound by it, toward the forest. 

Except perhaps, when the soft, flickering light of a lantern shone through its windows in the dark of night. Or, when the smell of a woodfire in the cast iron stove drew up and out of the crumbling stone chimney and moved with a thin line of smoke through the cold winter air, toward the road. 

Squinting, one might then be able to make out the shape of the little hut against the dark of the looming pines. And on closer observation see a woman and her three young children through the window, gathered around a tiny table at their evening meal of soup and bread. 

In the springtime, glancing from the road toward the distant sound of children’s voices one could see it in the clearing, with its door wide open underneath the low thatched roof.  And notice the widowed mother bent over the garden with her little children playing at catch with pine cones nearby, and running barefoot through the fresh, green, grass. 

It was on one of these sunny, early summer days that a seed from a pinecone somehow made its way inside the little hut. Perhaps it had broken free from its hull in the toss and gotten stuck in one of the children’s coarse, handwoven shirts. Or been caught in a tangled wisp of hair on a loose braid. Then again it might have fallen between the warm eggs which the widow had just gathered from the hen coop and placed carefully into her bundled apron. Or, it had simply blown in through the open door on a gentle breeze. Nonetheless, loosened from wherever it was it had fallen and landed in a corner on the earthen floor of the hut and, lying there, was pressed into the hard soil by a briefly passing foot. 

There it stayed after the children had gone to sleep nestled together like beans in a pod on the single hay-filled mattress they shared. And then was covered with a fine layer of loosened soil a bit later, when the coarse straw tips of the widow’s broom passed over the floor as she tidied up that night. 

And so it remained, unnoticed, for quite some time. 

Summer passed, and then the Autumn came.

Now the children helped their mother gather what had grown in the garden. Onions, carrots, turnips, potatoes, cabbages and such were now tucked into crates at the coldest, north-facing wall of the hut and stored there, to provide them food for the Winter. 

It was then while bringing a basket of carrots inside that the youngest noticed something standing hidden in the corner, behind the crates. 

The sun was shining through the window and at that moment cast a beam of light into the corner, just as she came in. There she saw a little pine tree which had grown from the fallen seed and heartily taken root! 

With a squeal of delight with all her might, she pulled the heavy wooden crates away and called her siblings in. 

The little family was as poor as poor could be. Although the widowed mother did the best she could to keep her children clothed and fed there simply was no money to purchase things for entertainment. And so they had few toys; two dolls, which had been carved from a stick of birch and wrapped in a scrap of cloth. A wooden bowl of smooth, round, stones the children had collected and invented various games to play with. And chunks of charcoal from the stove, which they would use to draw and write with upon a thin slab of slate.

Unaware of any loss they might have felt for lack of more material possessions, their imaginations grew. And so they took much pleasure from the few things that they owned and delighted in simple wonders. 

The little tree was one of these. As they gathered around it, they remarked with amazement on how it had grown all on its own, without ever being noticed! It was a little miracle, they said, and begged their mother to let them keep it where it was. If they cared for it, surely it would grow! And by the end of December perhaps, it could even become their Christmas tree! The mother’s heart was touched by their joy, and so she allowed the tree to remain where it was.

Weeks passed and now the grass turned brown in the fields and the wind blew colder from the North.

Rain fell mixed with ice and stuck in the slough grass of the thatched roof. Here and there, a snowflake fell. Winter had arrived early this year. Outgrown sweaters were quickly mended at the elbows and passed down to the younger, smaller, child. The children stuffed dried moss into the window crevices in order to keep out the cold drafts. They carried logs in from the wood-stack leaning up against an outside wall, and fed the fire burning in the stove. 

They chased the few chickens into the coop, and lined the laying boxes with fresh straw, while the mother tried as best she could to tighten any loose boards on the crude lean-to at the back of the hut, where their only sheep were kept. Working all together in this way, soon they were as ready as they could be for the Winter.  

Throughout all the long months before Christmas, the children joyfully continued to care for the precious little tree with the best of attention. And so it grew much faster even than a tree would grow in the forest. In fact, it seemed the little pine truly was quite filled with magic. By the middle of December, it had grown so tall that its crown reached just above the eldest child’s head! Its branches, now thick with dark green needles, stretched out and made a lovely bower over the children’s sleeping place. Meanwhile, the air of the little hut was filled with the rich, fresh, scent of pine. 

Late one morning, the day before Christmas, the mother sat knitting a sweater from the wool of their sheep for the eldest child. The children had stopped their play and sat together admiring the little tree. A moment later they began to ask their mother what they had to decorate the tree with, in order to prepare it for Christmas Day. The mother sang softly as she knitted, trying to ease her worries. Aside from a few apples she had stored and hidden away since Fall and a simple cake she would bake with the tiny bit of precious honey that was left, she did not even have gifts to give her children. Much less, anything to decorate the branches of a tree. The hut was cold despite the fire burning in the stove. The soup which boiled on top of it was thin. She looked at her children who were always brave and hopeful and now saw a sadness in their eyes. She put down her knitting and called them to her.  

“My dear children,” she said “Listen, now. There is nice hot soup to eat. And good wool from our sheep for sweaters that will keep us warm. We have firewood still, to keep the fire burning, and blankets to cover us at night. And remember, we have each other’s company! Truly there is much to be grateful for. Let us think of these things and not be sad. We must always keep faith that the good Lord provides. Even if we do not have pretty, shiny new things to hang on its branches, the little tree is itself a miracle! Now, let us clean and make everything nice in preparation for Christmas Day.” 

And this they did, and bravely held back the tears that wanted to come despite the comforting words of their mother. 

They polished the earthen floor and cleaned the windows. They shook their blankets out in the cold, fresh air and fluffed the hay in the linen bed-ticks. Dust was wiped from the walls and swept out from all the corners. And when the eldest reached up with the broom to clear the cobwebs all were so busy that not one of them noticed the house-spiders scurrying back to hide in the furthest ceiling corner, behind the tree. There they huddled, those little spiders with their funny long legs and tiny, shining, black eyes. Watching the little family at work.  

Every creature great or small has its purpose and throughout all summer long the spiders had done the work of all good house-spiders. They had caught the mosquitos and flies in their webs and protected the children from bites, and kept the flies from their food. They had tucked their webs discreetly in corners making certain never to be of nuisance or ever to make a mess. For months they had also quietly observed how well the children had cared for the tree; how kind they had been to one another and how humbly grateful they were for what little they had. Indeed, the spiders had now been disturbed from their webs but in truth, they were not concerned at all by this. A web could easily be built again. More so, they took pity on the children, as they watched them bravely fighting back their tears. And on the widow who worked so hard but could not fulfill their only wish to decorate the tree for Christmas Day. 

With the hut completely tidy and clean, the little family sat down at the table and said their grace over bowls of soup. The sheep and chickens were fed, the supper- bowls put away and all were quiet until they said goodnight. The mother filled the stove with wood and blew the lantern out. 

The stars were bright and a cold wind blew around the hut. The children snuggled up against one another and in the dark of night saw the bright moon cast its light through the window over the bare branches of the tree. Each child silently shed a few tears. All were soon fast asleep.

In the ceiling corner behind the tree, the spiders put their bristly little spider-heads together. No one could hear them, for their conversation was one of silent understanding. Their movement was also quiet – so very quiet.  The only sound was the soft breathing of the sleeping mother and children.

The littlest child was the first to wake the next morning. The wind had stopped but It was cold in the hut. With the blanket pulled up just under her nose, she could see her breath like little clouds in the air. She would have stayed just where she was, snuggled warm between her siblings, but her eye caught something sparkling ** in the early sunlight streaming through the window.

And there! Another sparkle, and another – coming from the corner where the little tree stood! Now she sat up straight, and oh! She rubbed her eyes and shook her brother and sister awake.

The sight was dazzling. Rays of sun came through the window and shone directly unto the tree. What was this miracle, the children thought?! They could not speak in their amazement, for it seemed the branches of the tree were covered in hundreds of gold and silver threads. They glittered and shone and sent shimmering sparkles of light onto all four walls of the hut. The mother was now also awake. Quickly, all threw on their warm sweaters and stood around the little tree. Now they saw that the dazzling threads were in the shape of webs that had been intricately woven by the spiders as they slept, the silk of which had been transformed into gold and silver during the night. 

They held each other as the sparkling light of the webs reflected on their beaming faces, and with their eyes and hearts drank in the miracle which had been brought to them by the spiders on Christmas Day. 

When the twelve days of Christmas had passed, they gently gathered the silver and gold from the branches and bundled them into linen cloth. With this they knew that their days of poverty had come to an end, and forever they kept the miracle of the tree and the Christmas spiders in their hearts.