Words you need to understand Christmas in Germany

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


Strangely, there is no English word to directly translate "Vorfreude," which expresses "joyful anticipation." The German saying, "Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude," reminds us that anticipation is the greatest joy. Children learn quickly enough that their impossible list of wishes will not always get fulfilled. The fun part is that they can still happily hope it will — maybe — next year.

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


A good way to sweeten the long (but joyful) wait until Christmas is with cookies. The ones Germans bake are called "Plätzchen," which literally translates as "little place." "Platz" (place) is also dialect for "flat cake," so Plätzchen are just a smaller version of those. And we'll always have a little spot left to eat one or two more of them, no matter how full we are.

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


In a classic 1978 Christmas sketch by German comedian Loriot, a grandpa complains, "Früher war mehr Lametta!," (There used to be more tinsel!). The couple decorating the Christmas tree explains that they now prefer ecological decorations. Tinsel was invented in Nuremberg around 1610. It was originally made with real strands of silver, and later lead — until that was discovered to be poisonous.

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


Even non-religious families often go to church on Christmas Eve. After all, the whole party was invented because Jesus was born, and that's something children should at least know before overdosing on sugar and presents. Most services that night include a nativity play, or "Krippenspiel," where children recreate the events that led us, over 2,000 years later, to continue celebrating Christmas.

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


In some parts of Germany, and in different European countries, it's not Santa Claus who brings the presents under the tree without being seen, but rather the Christkind, represented as a blond angel with wings. Santa Claus started taking over in the mid-20th century, following his appearances in US films. Many German children still send their list of wishes to the Christkind — just to be sure.

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


This is definite proof that Germans are more precise with their Christmas vocabulary: "Bescherung" concisely refers to the moment during which gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve. When they add the adjective "beautiful" to that word, as in "schöne Bescherung," it can ironically mean "what a mess." That was the title of the German version of the comedy "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


Gifts are traditionally exchanged on Christmas Eve, called in German "Heiligabend" (literally, holy evening). Christmas itself translates as "Weihnachten," which is derived from ancient Germanic dialect and means the holy nights. The term is plural, as the celebration was traditionally one that covered 12 days. Now in Germany it runs from the evening of December 24 through December 26.

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


Although the exact dates differ from one region to the other, usually, the "Raunächte" correspond to the period known as the 12 Days of Christmas, from December 25 to January 6, ending with the Christian feast of Epiphany. In Germanic mythology, during this special period of the year, animals were said to be able to predict the future and demons could pay a visit at any time.

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


Epiphany is the celebration also known as Three Kings' Day, when the Wise Men came "from the Orient" bearing precious gifts for Jesus. In German, they're called "Die Weisen aus dem Morgenland." Martin Luther coined the term "Morgenland" in his translation of the Bible. The word is now an outdated way to refer to the Middle East or Far East.

10 words that reveal Germany's Christmas culture


This is not exclusively a word for the Christmas season, but it's certainly a glittering German expression: "Hüftgold" (Hip gold) is what you might develop, like this gingerbread man, after spending several days feasting. It's the equivalent of "love handles." Go ahead, enjoy all those delicious Christmas treats. Those extra pounds will make your hips shine.

Christmas is celebrated in many countries, but little details — and the words used to describe them — can reveal interesting cultural differences. These terms provide insight into German particularities.

Christmas is a time filled with traditions and imagery, and there are countless German words associated with it: "Kerze" (candle), "Wunschzettel" (wish list), "Tannenbaum" (Christmas tree), "Engel" (angel), "Lebkuchen" (gingerbread), "Schneeflocke" (snowflake), "Nussknacker" (Nutcracker) "Zuckerstange" (candy cane), "Rentier" (reindeer), just to name a few.

The English word for "Geschenk," gift, means poison in German, so be careful not to confuse those two.

The words in the gallery above reveal some of the particularities of Christmas in Germany. Of course, traditions vary from region to region and from one family to the other.

There are also many more poetic and amusing German terms that reveal the country's Yuletide spirit. Follow us on Twitter on @dw_culture and send us your favorite ones.

Travel | 02.12.2016

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