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German phrase of the day: Zwischen den Jahren

Here's why -and how - people in Germany are currently living 'between the years'.

German word of the day
Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

Why do I need to know it?

Among Germans or in German-language media, you’re likely to hear and read this phrase a lot this week.

What does it mean?

Leave it to the German language to come up with a concise phrase that captures the time between Christmas and New Year’s. Literally “between the years”, the phrase typically refers to December 26th through January 1st. In southern Germany, the time frame can stretch until January 6th when Three Kings’ Day is celebrated and the holiday season is officially over.

READ ALSO: Three Kings Day: What you should know about Germany’s public holiday in three states

With the exception of the post-Christmas retail rush, life in Germany tends to be in a lull during this week. Many companies completely shut down their operations, or workers use up their remaining vacation days to relax with friends and family.

In some parts of Germany, superstition even has it brings bad luck to work zwischen den Jahren, so don’t feel guilty sleeping in late or meeting up with your mates rather than catching up on emails.

What is the history behind it?

The centuries-old idiom is related to the different determinations of the turn of the year that existed until early modern times, according to the Society for the German Language. 

According to the Roman calendar, the new year initially began on March 1st, when the high officials took office. In 153 AD, this occurred for the first time on January 1st, and from then on this day was considered the beginning of the year for the entire Roman Empire. 

The Christians, on the other hand, initially began the year on the day of Jesus’ baptism, January 6th. In the middle of the 4th century, when Jesus’ birth was celebrated on December 25th instead of the baptism, they also moved the beginning of the year to this day. 

After several changes of the beginning of the year in the Middle Ages, New Year’s Day was finally fixed for the Christian world on January 1st in 1691. 

So although there is actually no longer a period of time “between the years”, the phrase has persisted to this day. 

Examples of how it’s used

Zum Glück muss ich zwischen den Jahren gar nicht arbeiten. 

Luckily I don’t have to work at all during the time between Christmas and New Year. 

Zwischen den Jahren treffe ich mich mit vielen alten Kumpels, die auch frei haben. 

In the week leading up to New Year’s Eve I’m meeting with many old pals who also are on vacation. 

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For members


German phrase of the day: Die Butter vom Brot nehmen

If you're looking for a German phrase that describes one of the most heinous and anti-social crimes imaginable, look no further than this one.

German phrase of the day: Die Butter vom Brot nehmen

Why do I need to know this phrase?

Die Butter vom Brot nehmen (pronounced like this) is another classic example of Germans using food to describe almost any situation in life – and in this case, you can use it to call out people who always seem to be trying to get the better of you. 

What does it mean?

While normally there’s a fairly accurate equivalent to German sayings in English, in this case it’s a little harder to find a direct translation.

As you may realise, die Butter vom Brot nehmen quite literally means: “taking the butter from the bread”. It’s used to describe situations where someone takes something important from someone else, behaves a bit cheekily or tries to get one over on another person in some way. For instance, if there’s one dog at the park that always steals your dog’s ball, that would be a key example of a canine butter-thief. 

You may wonder why this scenario is so emotive for the Germans. Aren’t there worse things to take from someone than a bit of butter? 

Well, one reason could be that butter is viewed as a key component of any Abendbrot ritual: it’s the salty, fatty bit of deliciousness that can perfectly complement your salami and Sauergurke (pickled gherkins) when you’re tucking into a few slices of rye as a light evening meal. And if you find you don’t have at least an inch of butter on both sides of your belegtes Brötchen (filled bread roll), as a German you may well ask for your money back.

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day: Erste Sahne

What else should I know?

If you’d like to start using this fun expression, it’s important to note that you’ll need to use the dative case with it, as in jemandem die Butter vom Brot nehmen. This often applies when something is being given or taken, and means you’ll use dative pronouns such as dir, mir, ihr and ihm to talk about the person losing out rather than their accusative forms of dich, mich, sie and ihn.

Use it like this: 

Willst du mir jetzt auch noch die Butter vom Brot nehmen?

Now you also want to get the better of me?

Er ist ein Typ, der sich die Butter vom Brot nicht nehmen lässt. 

He’s a guy that doesn’t take any nonsense from anybody.