The German words and phrases you need to know to survive the holidays

With festivities around the corner, we've put together a few words and phrases that will come in handy.

The German words and phrases you need to know to survive the holidays
Adventszeit in Germany. Photo: DPA

Christmas and New Year’s can be a wonderful time of year. But it’s also a bit (or very) stressful. And if you’re spending it as a foreigner in Germany, you might feel a bit overwhelmed at times.

So here are some festive phrases to familarize yourself with, so you can feel a bit more relaxed over Christmas and in the days leading up to the New Year.

Greetings at Christmas
Let’s start with the basics. Merry Christmas is Fröhliche Weihnachten or Frohe Weihnachten. But here are a few more greetings you could use:
Besinnliche Feiertage: have a peaceful/reflective holiday time
Frohes Fest: happy holidays
Schöne Festtage: have a lovely festive time
Erholsame Feiertage: have a relaxing/rejuvenating festive time.
The time leading up to Christmas is Advent time (die Adventszeit). Many Germans celebrate by baking cookies (die Plätzchen) and enjoying time with family or friends at Christmas markets (der Weihnachtsmarkt) where they might glug down some mulled wine (der Glühwein).
Then, of course Saint Nicholas Day (der Nikolaustag) is on December 6th. On the evening of the 5th, children leave out shoes in the hope that Saint Nicholas will fill them with chocolates.
Festive traditions
Germans tend to buy and decorate their Christmas tree (Weihnachtsbaum, Tannenbaum) on the 23rd or 24th December, although it often happens a bit earlier nowadays. They might get together as a family to put decorations (der Baumschmuck) on it.
Baubles (die Christbaumkugeln or die Kugeln) are hung on the branches along with Christmas tree lights (die Christbaumkerzen) and tinsel (Lametta).
When it comes to presents, families open them on December 24th. And as to who’s delivering them? Well, that’s still a debate.
Today, in mostly Catholic areas of the country (the south), children still expect gifts from the Christkind. In the largely Protestant north and east, the Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus) is considered the bearer of Christmas gifts.
A Christmas tree seller in Hanover. Photo: DPA
New Year’s greetings
New Year in Germany is called Silvester and celebrated on December 31st.

If you want to wish someone happy New Year you could say: Frohes neues Jahr.

Here’s some other greetings:

Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr: This literally translates as ‘have a good slide into to the New Year’ but really means ‘have a good start to the New Year.’

Komm gut ins neue Jahr: Have a nice New Year

Komm gesund ins neue Jahr: Arrive healthily into the New Year

New Year’s traditions

In Germany on Silvester you might very well need sparkling wine (der Sekt) to get you through the festivities.

Like lots of other places, New Year’s Eve is filled with lots of noise. Germans love setting off fireworks (die Feuerwerke) or firecrackers (die Böllern).

Fireworks in Cologne. Photo: DPA

Those who stay home on Silvester in Germany are likely to be watching the 1963 TV recording of the British comedy sketch Dinner for one.

The programme has been a treasured part of German New Year’s tradition since 1972 and holds the Guinness record for being the most frequently repeated TV show in history.

READ ALSO: ‘Germans have kept it alive’: Dinner for One star’s son on the enduring legacy of a New Year favourite

Of course, the phrase you’ll need for this tradition is actually in English:

“The same procedure as every year, James”

Snacks aplenty

Anyone in front of the telly might be eating Fondue (a traditional Swiss dish made of melted cheese).

They may also be scoffing jelly doughnuts (die Pfannkuchen) too. But be careful… at some point it became a well-known prank to put mustard in one or two of the Pfannkuchen as a funny surprise for New Year’s guests.

Viel Glück!

For those who go out on Silvester, good luck charms are often exchanged in the form of little pig figures, horseshoes or four-leaf clovers.

Acquaintances may give good luck charms to each other in the form of pigs, four-leaf clovers, horseshoes and pigs.

With reporting by Kathrin Thams

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.