Ist das hier Weihnachten oder Karneval?
"The problem with Christmas in Germany is that it's so, um, so, um, so, so " We waited with bated breath for my British friend to find the word he wanted to finish his sentence. When nothing came out of his mouth, we started guessing. Boring? Expensive? Religious? Then finally, I hit the nail on the head when I suggested "solemn".
"Solemn, yes, that's it. Christmas in Germany is just so [very rude word] solemn." And we understood that he meant solemn in the sense of "not cheerful or smiling, serious" rather than its other meanings of "formal or dignified" or "characterized by deep sincerity". (All definitions from the Oxford Dictionary of English.)
Funnily enough, though, this was exactly what I liked about Christmas in Germany when I first arrived from Britain in 1989. I had never been a big fan of Christmas and I'm still not. But I appreciated the fact that a German Christmas seemed to be a quiet, dignified affair. The commercial razzmatazz that you found in Britain hadn't found its way to Germany yet. Now, of course, it's here with a bang, including this year's mini-scandal of various Christmas markets opening before Advent.
But back in 1989, I was happy to escape the gaudy nature of British Christmas, which consisted of the following procedure. Does it sound familiar?
- Eat far too much.
- Drink far too much.
- Watch far too much television.
- Argue with your family.
- Maybe go for a short walk, but preferably continue eating, drinking and arguing.
- Start the whole cycle again.
I was even willing to forgive Germany for celebrating Christmas (or "Xmas", as we often write) too early - on the 24th and not the 25th, as in Britain. But I was disappointed about the way Germany treated Xmas in terms of holidays. In Britain, if the 25th or 26th falls on a weekend, people get an extra day's holiday during the week to compensate. None of this "employer-favourable" stuff, when the 25th is a Saturday and the 26th is a Sunday. No way mate - in Britain, we're taking other days off!
German visitors to Britain at Christmas often have the feeling that they have arrived in the middle of the carnival season. While eating our Christmas lunch, we wear silly paper hats, blow paper whistles that make silly noises, play with silly plastic toys and tell silly jokes.
We Brits love pulling crackers
The hats, whistles, toys and jokes are all found in the "Christmas crackers" that we pull at the meal table. The Oxford Dictionary defines such a cracker as "a decorated paper cylinder which, when pulled apart, makes a sharp noise and releases a small toy or other novelty".
We Brits love pulling crackers. But be careful about using that expression because "to pull a cracker" also means to have a relationship - usually, sexual rather than solemn - with an attractive woman. (Note: crackers are also thin dry biscuits or light crisps made of rice, as in "prawn crackers", but that's not important right now.)
As for the cracker jokes, they are seriously silly and seriously corny. Here are a few examples:
Q: What do you call a blind reindeer?
A: No eye deer.
Q: What's orange and sounds like a parrot?
A: A parrot.
Q: Why won't cannibals eat clowns?
A: Because they taste funny.
Q: What happens if you put a bomb in a tin of alphabet spaghetti?
A: Well, if it goes off, it could spell disaster.
Q: What's the name of Father Christmas's wife?
A: Mary Christmas.
And, finally, one for linguists:
Q: What do you call Father Christmas's helpers?
A: Subordinate clauses. (Nebensätze.)
You get the picture, I think. If you want more such jokes, go here.
Childish? Maybe, but we Brits wish each other a Merry Christmas and we take this obligation to be merry very seriously. And as the dictionary says, merry means "cheerful and lively", "characterized by festivity and enjoyment" and also being "slightly and good-humouredly drunk" - as in, "Ooh, no, I couldn't possibly have a third sherry. I'm already feeling a bit merry." A synonym for merry in this context would be "tipsy". For more British Christmas jollity, which includes the idiomatic expression "to pull a cracker" at the start, check out this song with British comedian Mel Smith and singer Kim Wilde.
To finish, I'd like to tell you a Christmas story:
A married couple in London, Mary and Peter, were entertaining their German friend Ulf for Christmas. Peter and Ulf were old friends, as they had both been lifelong communists. During Ulf's three-day stay, however, he was constantly getting into arguments with Mary and was often very rude to her. On one occasion, Peter came into the living room to find Mary and Ulf arguing violently over the weather. "Look", said Mary, "it's starting to snow." Ulf replied angrily, "That's not snow, that's rain!" Mary insisted, "No, Ulf, it's snow." Ulf shouted loudly, "It's only rain, believe me!" At this point, Peter decided to intervene. "Oh, please stop arguing, won't you," he said to his wife. "Rude Ulf the Red knows rain, dear."
On that corny note, I wish you all a happy holiday period and all the best for the New Year. (For more such Christmas phrases, see here).
See you in 2013, when I'll give you more help with the English language. And that's a solemn - I mean, sincere - promise.