EWTN news anchor Raymond Arroyo debuts his “Legend Series” of self-contained episodic children’s stories with “The Spider Who Saved Christmas.” Based on the Eastern European legend of the Christmas spider, Arroyo places the titular arachnid in Israel shortly after Christ’s birth.
The book provides an origin to the practice of the Nephila spider basking in the sun. The spider, also known as a “golden silk orb-weaver,” goes by the name Nephila. Like Mary, she is a mother trying to protect her children — in this case, her egg sac.
The story begins with Mary and Joseph carrying baby Jesus during the flight into Egypt as the young parents are trying to avoid King Herod’s soldiers. They find shelter in a cave where Joseph the protector becomes nervous about Nephila’s presence. Mary reassures him, saying “All are here for a reason. Let it be.”
Arroyo does not sugarcoat the brutality of Herod’s soldiers, even for a children’s audience. While most Christmas stories tend to stay on the happy side, the author uses simple language to convey why the Holy Family is fleeing. “Poor children,” Joseph tells his wife. As the couple falls asleep, the author writes that “Only the faraway shrieks disturbed the cave’s silence.” He drives home this point later in the book when he introduces three soldiers carrying “blood-slicked swords.”
The Spider Who Saved Christmas
Sophia Institute Press, Manchester, New Hampshire
Oct. 15, 2020
Length: 40 pp.
The topic is a heavy one and needs to be addressed delicately when reading to children. But, like the Bible itself, the story is not all roses. For parents familiar with the Gospels, they can use this as an opportunity to catechize their children about the Feast of the Holy Innocents celebrated during the Christmas Octave on Dec. 28. For parents not as familiar, they may have trouble explaining these scenes to their children within the context of a bedtime story.
Like Flannery O’Connor’s use of the grotesque, Arroyo does not leave the story void of hope. Nephila recognizes the innocence of the Child, and while not exactly understanding who He is, she knows He is someone important. With the help of her older children, she spins a beautiful golden web at the entrance of the cave so that when the soldiers arrive, they believe it has been there a while and leave.
Randy Gallegos beautifully illustrates the golden web in the book. In a poignant scene, which also happens to be the book’s cover art, the Infant Jesus grazes the web, and Gallegos paints an innocent smile that lets the readers experience the love of Christ through the art.
“My favorite part is when Jesus says to the spider, ‘Thank you, and I love you,’” my 4-year-old son told me after we read the story.
After the Holy Family departs, Nephila basks in the sun, waiting for the “return of the Child with the sweet cry she could never forget.” Adding an element common in folktales, Arroyo adds an origin to a particular characteristic — in this case, it’s why Nephila spiders have the name and bask in the sun.
The legend upon which the story is based has many versions. One version has a poor family unable to decorate their Christmas tree. The spider, taking pity, decorates the tree with her beautiful silk, which turns to gold and silver when the sunlight hits it. According to some variations, this is the origin of tinsel on a tree.
While most religious children’s Christmas stories highlight the Nativity or the Epiphany, not many focus on the Flight into Egypt, which is an important, yet often overlooked part of the Christmas narrative. Arroyo provides this opportunity to parents, accompanied by beautiful artwork. But parents should also be prepared to discuss the very real — and true — barbarity depicted in the book with their children.
Tony Gutiérrez is a freelance journalist based out of Cave Creek, Arizona specializing in religion. He is also the father of three small children who, like most children, do their best to drive him crazy. So far, they are succeeding.