The 12 idioms of Christmas: popular English phrases explained
People all over the world use ‘idioms’ to express everyday thoughts. Here we explain some of the more common – and fun – ones used in English at Christmastime
“Has the cat got your tongue?” “Yes, when pigs fly!” “It’s all Greek to me!”
Idioms are short phrases in English and other languages that don’t actually mean what they say, but convey a very different meaning. You have probably heard the above phrases before, but do you know what they mean? (We’ll tell you at the end of this article if you don’t.)
For example, if your friend says, “Let’s paint the town red!”, he or she does not mean you should buy red paint and brushes and sneak around Dublin painting all the buildings red. It means: “Let’s go out and have some fun.” (The term comes from the times when celebrating included lighting fires outside at night.)
Another fun example is if someone says it was raining cats and dogs last night – an idiom you might hear in Dublin a lot. It doesn’t mean that there were family pets falling from the sky, but that it was raining very heavily.
As you can see from the above examples, idioms often tend to be fun. They are also really good to know if you want to become a better English speaker. Idioms are something we focus on in our classes here in Englishour.
Here are some English idioms and other common phrases you might hear in Ireland at Christmas:
- Like turkeys voting for an early Christmas: This means that someone is choosing to do something which will not be good for them. After all, where do turkeys end usually end up on Christmas Day in Ireland?
- Good things come in small packages: If something or someone is small, they can still be very good. In other words, size is not important. This applies to Christmas presents too.
- Stocking stuffer/filler: This is a small Christmas gift brought by Santa Claus which can be put in the traditional stocking left at chimneys by children on Christmas Eve. It has nothing to do with women’s legs and tights!
- To beat the holiday blues: Often at times like Christmas, people feel lonely or sad (‘blue’) because they miss family or friends. ‘Beating the holiday blues’ means cheering yourself up by doing positive things.
- Deck the halls (with boughs of holly): This means to brighten up your home or workplace with Christmas decorations. Holly is a bush with green leaves, white flowers and red berries whose ‘boughs’ (branches) are used as decoration at Christmas.
- It’s the thought that counts: This refers to Christmas presents you receive. It means that it is not the value of the gift that matters, but the fact that someone bought you one in the first place.
- Kissing under the mistletoe: Mistletoe is a green plant which, like holly, is used as a decoration at Christmas. People used to kiss under it in ancient times as a way of welcoming someone. Now it is just for lovers!
- To light up like a Christmas tree: This means that someone has dressed up in their fanciest clothes. These days, in Ireland, as you may have noticed people tend to light up like a Christmas tree by wearing Christmas jumpers.
- Tis the season to be jolly: This phrase is used at Christmas to make people feel happy or jolly. The month of December is about celebrating the past year and looking forward to the next one.
- ‘Bah! Humbug!’: This is a way of complaining about someone who doesn’t ‘enter into the Christmas spirit’. The phrase was most famously used by Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. A ‘humbug’ is an unpleasant, deceitful or grumpy person; ‘Bah!’ is a way of dismissing them.
- The 12 Days of Christmas: In Christian tradition, this is the period of time between the birth of Jesus (December 25th) and the arrival of the Three Wise Men or ‘Magi’ (January 6th). It is also the title of a famous English carol (Christmas song or hymn).
- To ring in the New Year: This refers to the sounds of bells that are heard at midnight on December 31st as the coming of the New Year is celebrated.
And finally: ‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last’ is not an idiom but a line from the famous Christmas song, Fairytale of New York, sung by the Pogues and Kirsty McColl. The male protagonist is fighting with his partner, saying he can’t be happy with her at Christmas (‘arse’, a crude term for bottom, is here used like a curse) and hopes they break up.
But don’t worry! The song ends on a happier note as he sings to her:
“Can’t make it all alone,
I’ve built my dreams around you.”
Happy holidays to all our students, past, present and future!
And those idioms from the start:
“Has the cat got your tongue?”: Used when someone is refusing to talk or make a comment on a situation.
“Yes, when pigs fly!”: Used when something will clearly never happen.
“It’s all Greek to me!”: Used when someone can’t understand anything.