Thirteen is not a number we associate with Christmas. Twelve days thereof; three kings and/or ships; the Christmas Number One; December the twenty-fifth; zero good reasons to consume a sprout. Terrifying stats blizzards tell us we’ll eat 30,000,000 mince pies in the UK this Yuletide, and there’s the ever-decreasing number of shopping days and pounds in our bank accounts. Thirteen, meanwhile, is categorically not festive – it’s the number of unlucky Thursdays and Olivia Wilde’s Huntingdon’s-dogged heroine in House.
And yet thirteen, it seems, is deeply Christmassy – if you know where to look. In Iceland, in the last thirteen days before Christmas, lucky Icelandic children are visited by each member of the team of the Thirteen Yule Lads, a group of half-trolls that sounds marvellously like a seasonal Corbyn meme. The Yule Lads fill good children’s shoes with toys, and bad children’s shoes with raw potatoes. It gets better: each of the Yule Lads has a different personality, and thus a preferred tipple must be left for them, not unlike Father Christmas’s cheery mince pies and sherry. Except, oh, the Yule Lads include Sheep Worrier (Stekkjarstaur) who wants milk, and Spoon Licker (Pvoruskleikir) who requires a butter-covered spoon. Candle Beggar (Kertasnikir) will go to town on your beeswax when he comes on Christmas Eve, and until their cultural reimagining in recent years (which has seen red Santa suits replace ominous rags), the Yule Lads were accompanied by Yule Cat, who liked to steal children (making these festive kittens look positively well-behaved). The Lads’ troll mother Gryla eats children too. More than seventy Yule Lads have been recorded in Icelandic folklore, but today’s thirteen-strong line-up also features Pot Scraper (Pottaskefill), Bowl Licker (Askasleikir) and the ominous-sounding Meat Hook and Doorway Sniffer (Ketkrókur and Gáttaþefur, respectively). Which Yule Lad Are You? asks Buzzfeed, festively.
All right, maybe the Icelandic Huldufólk, the ‘hidden people’ of the country’s mythology, aren’t as unequivocally seasonal as all that. A far less sinister Christmas thirteen comes from Provence – originally from nineteenth-century Marseille. From Christmas Eve to 27th December, families set out lei tretze desserts in Occitan – thirteen festive desserts representing Jesus and the twelve apostles. The exact composition of these puddings varies by village or family, but – beyond the glorious Yule Log – certain ingredients carry symbolic meaning. Raisins, hazelnuts, figs, and almonds symbolise the four mendicant monastic orders in the Roman Catholic Church: Dominicans, Augustines, Franciscans, and Carmelite. Soft and hard nougats symbolise good and evil. Fougasse, an olive oil flatbread, is torn (rather than cut) then spread with grape jam, to protect family finances in the coming year. Seasonal fruits including green melon from Cavaillon is also popular. Dates symbolise the land of Christ’s birth. Unfortunately for any Pvoruskleikir visiting their French penpals, butter-covered spoons aren’t included.
Would you rather be a Provencal child or an Icelandic one? Thirteen desserts sounds fairly brilliant, but then, so does thirteen days of presents. As long as a candle-munching, sheep-worrying demi-troll doesn’t feed you to his cat.