New children’s book spins Christmas tale about spiders

There is an ancient legend about Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and a spider.

After Jesus was born, the Holy Family fled into Egypt, while baby boys were being slaughtered by order of King Herod. The legend says that one night the family stopped to sleep in a cave. There was a spider in that cave, the story goes, who knew the infant Jesus was a special child.

According to the legend, the spider felt called to do something unexpected— something that would save Mary, Joseph, and Jesus from soldiers sent by King Herod on a terrible mission.

The legend of that spider — “The Spider Who Saved Christmas” — became well-known in some parts of the world. In fact, some people say that tinsel is placed on Christmas trees to remember the web of that spider. The legend is now told in a new children’s book, released this month by children’s author and television host Raymond Arroyo.

“The Spider Who Saved Christmas,” Arroyo told CNA “fills an important gap in the Christmas story, one we don’t often consider.”

“I discovered this Legend in a footnote of a Bible commentary,” Arroyo said, and “was intrigued.”

“My telling of the legend is really all about motherhood, sacrifice, family, and overcoming fear to recognize the hope that is often all around us. I expanded the spare tale, created some characters and got to spend some time with the Holy Family. It actually made me appreciate them and their struggle in a new way,” the author said.

Arroyo is well-known as a television host on the EWTN network and on Fox News. He told CNA that “in my heart, I have always been a story teller. I’ve told stories on television, through music, and with the written word. A well told story is often more true than assembled facts, and they often stay with audiences longer.”

“The Spider Who Saved Christmas” is not Arroyo’s first book for children. The author has also written three installments in a series of adventure stories, and is working on a fourth.

“I started writing for younger audiences because of my own children,” Arroyo said, adding that he intends to write more illustrated books based upon legends of times past.

“I think these old stories have survived largely because they contain a bit of wisdom that we need for living. I’ve always thought that every good story is a guide for life. The series will likely contain forgotten, or discarded stories that I think need a bit of attention. They won’t all be origin stories. But they will give a wide audience an opportunity to look at figures they thought they knew, or consider stories they thought they understood in a different light,” he said.

“I’ve always loved the first books I read. I don’t really consider them children’s literature, but great literature. ‘Treasure Island,’ ‘Peter Pan,’ ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ can be enjoyed by children, but the deeper themes and the truth contained in them are quite adult.”

“When I wrote my Will Wilder series, I decided to write for both young audiences as well as their parents and guardians. I love books that you can return to later in life and find a different story. I also love sharing these stories with young audiences. They hold a book closer than adults. So though I will likely write for adults again, I’ll never stop writing what the world condescendingly calls ‘children’s literature.’ It’s actually better termed ‘human formation literature.’”

Arroyo told CNA he appreciates the “challenge of writing for young audiences. They won’t tolerate the artifice, deceptions, humorlessness that adults will. Kids are actually quite clear-eyed. They expect truth, understanding, and fun. I try to bring all that to them, even when writing about a spider named Nephila.”

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”