A very German Christmas: Words and phrases every expat needs to know
It’s no secret that Germany takes Christmas seriously. As well as their umpteen ways of celebrating this most beloved of holidays, they have a whole plethora of words and phrases for talking about it as well! From basic festive greetings to ultra-specific Christmas vocabulary, it’s a lot for the unwitting expat to deal with.
The essential German Christmas words
But if you’re serious about learning German, you need to get serious about Christmas too! Here are the greetings, words and phrases that will get you through the festive season.
We’ll start with the basics. Here are some of the most common Christmas greetings used in Germany, so you can spread Christmas cheer far and wide:
- Fröhliche Weihnachten / Frohe Weihnachten - Merry Christmas
- Besinnliche Feiertage / Erholsame Feiertage - Have a peaceful holiday season
- Frohes Fest / Schöne Festtage - Happy holidays
Preparations for Christmas
The time leading up to Christmas is known as Advent time (die Adventszeit) in Germany. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. On this day, families traditionally set up their Advent wreath (der Adventskranz), an arrangement of leaves, flowers, decorations and four candles. One of these candles is lit each Sunday before Christmas, counting down the weeks until the holidays. On the first day of December, you might also open the first door of your Advent calendar (der Adventskalender).
In normal years, this is also the time when Christmas markets (die Weihnachtsmärkte) begin to open, dishing out artisan products (die Kunsthandwerke), along with lashings of mulled wine (der Glühwein), eggnog (der Eierpunsch) and Stollen.
Then, on the eve of December 5, German children (and maybe even some adults!) get polishing their shoes and boots, ready to leave out for St Nicholas (St. Nikolaus). If they’ve been good, their shoe will be filled with sweets, chocolates and other edible treats in the morning. If they’ve been bad, they will only receive a piece of wood (die Rute).
Christmas Eve in Germany
The Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum / Tannenbaum) is typically only put up on December 23 or 24 in Germany (although some people are starting to do it much earlier). Traditionally, the children are sent from the room while the parents decorate the tree with baubles (die Christbaumkugeln or Kugeln), fairy lights (die Lichterketten), candles (die Christbaumkerzen) and tinsel (das Lametta).
Presents are put under the tree and plates of tasty festive treats are put out. When the tree is ready, the parents ring a little bell and the children come running in. While they open their presents, they might sing Christmas carols (die Weihnachtslieder). Some families also go to midnight mass at church, where there will traditionally be a nativity scene (die Weihnachtskrippe).
What goes under a Christmas tree? Presents (die Geschenke), of course! In Germany, the main present-giving takes place on Christmas Eve (der Heiligabend). The fact that there’s a word - die Bescherung - to describe this act of exchanging presents at Christmas proves just how serious Germany is about Christmas traditions - and how ultra-specific its vocabulary can be.
Just as a quick side note… Beware: the English word “gift” means “poison” in German - so make sure not to confuse the two!
But who’s delivering all these presents? Well, that depends on who you’re asking, because - apart from Nikolaus - there are two other main gift givers in Germany: The Christkind and the Weihnachtsmann.
Although das Christkind was created as a Protestant alternative to Nikolaus, due to Martin Luther’s aversion to the Catholic idolisation of saints, nowadays - ironically - it’s predominantly children in Catholic areas of the country that look out for the Christkind’s arrival come Christmas Eve. In traditionally Protestant areas in the north and east of the country, it’s der Weihnachtsmann who delivers the presents - Germany’s answer to Santa Claus.
Whoever you’re expecting, make sure you write up a wish list (der Wunschzettel) and post it in good time. If you send a letter to the Christkind, St. Nikolaus or the Weihnachtsmann at one of their special Deutsche Post locations across Germany, you’ll get a reply!
Christmas food in Germany
But Christmas in Germany isn’t just about presents. Food also plays an important role. It should come as no surprise that there are plenty of traditional German Christmas foods that you’ll come across over the holiday season.
In the run up to the big day, families across the country traditionally bake Christmas cookies (die Plätzchen), such as Lebkuchen. Then on Christmas Eve, everyone partakes in a big feast, which might include a roast goose (der Gänsebraten / Weihnachtsgans) with dumplings (die Knödel) and red cabbage (der Rotkohl). Another popular dish is carp (der Karpfen). In other parts of the country, the meal on Christmas Eve is relatively simple, to save room for a feast on Christmas Day, and might include things like stew (der Eintopf) or sausages (die Würstchen) with potato salad (der Kartoffelsalat).
And if you indulge a little too much over the festive season - and let’s face it, most of us usually do - the Germans have got a word for that too, although not an exclusively Christmassy one: “das Hüftgold” (hip gold), is the equivalent of "love handles", and a sure sign that you’ve enjoyed yourself over the holidays.
New Year’s greetings in Germany
And before you know it, New Year’s Eve (der Silvester) is here! The “12 Days of Christmas” between December 25 and January 6 (Epiphany) are known as the Raunächte, and are traditionally said to be a very special time of year.
You can use the following greetings to wish somebody a Happy New Year on December 31:
- Frohes neues Jahr - Happy New Year
- Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr - Literally: have a good slide into the New Year (have a good start to the New Year)
- Komm gut / gesund ins neue Jahr - Have a nice New Year
New Year’s Eve traditions
New Year’s Eve is typically celebrated in Germany with lots of sparkling wine (der Sekt), beer and Feuerzangenbowle (flaming punch), as well as doughnuts (die Pfannkuchen, Krapfen or Berliner). But avoid any fish dishes - it’s said to bring bad luck! Good luck can be handed out in the form of a lucky charm (der Glücksbringer), little mushrooms, pigs, ladybirds, four-leaf clovers and horseshoes made out of marzipan, chocolate or biscuit.
Germans like to make a lot of noise on New Year’s Eve and normally set off a lot of fireworks (die Feuerwerke) or firecrackers (die Böllern). If you choose to stay home (which most of us probably will do this year), you’re more likely to be watching the 1963 recording of the British comedy sketch Dinner for One, which has been aired on German TV almost every New Year’s Eve since 1963. The only phrase you need for this is in English: “Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”
Talk like a German this Christmas
There you have it - all the German Christmas words and phrases you could possibly need! Now go and celebrate the holiday season like a German - you’re ready!