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Untranslatable German Words: Wichteln Posted by on Feb 9, 2017 in Culture, Holidays, Language, Traditions, vocabulary

In the pre-Christmas time, many groups throughout Germany practice an old tradition: Das Wichteln. But what is that? Find out here, in another post in the awesome series on untranslatable words in German that Constanze started on this blog!

What does Wichteln mean?

Wichteln is a tradition where all participants get a gift for someone else in the group. Mostly, the originality of the gift or the way it is presented counts more than the gift itself, which is often rather cheap. Often, a limit is set to how much a gift may cost. It is often also totally acceptable to wrap something second-hand. That is even a requirement in some cases, fully going by the principle “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”!

There are many varieties on Wichteln, such as Schrottwichteln, where a rule is that the gift should be especially worthless, as long as it is not trash.

What is the literal translation of wichteln?

The literal translation of Wichteln, considering that it comes from Wichtel (dwarf) would be “dwarfing“. The term was coined after a Wichtel, because they secretly do good things – just like during Wichteln.

How would you use the word wichteln in a sentence?

Depending on whether you use it as a verb or the noun, you can use wichteln for example like this:

“Wir werden nächste Woche wichteln. Bist du dabei?” (We will hold a Secret Santa next week. Are you in?)

Das Wichteln war auch dieses Jahr wieder ein Riesenerfolg. (Also this year, Secret Santa was a huge success.)

What’s the nearest English equivalent to wichteln?

As you may have already noticed above, the English equivalent is Secret Santa.

Is there a word in your language that equates to wichteln? What do you think about this tradition? Do you participate in it? Let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator and filmmaker.


  1. Alexis:

    I am the oldest child of seven, and we have started a secret Santa tradition, we’ve been doing it for four or five years now and we love it! I figured other places (like Germany) did things like that to, but now I know a word for it! Thank you this was a really fun post!

  2. Catherine Gosling:

    In Australia, people at workplaces often have a Kris Kringle, and they can set limits in the amount. Some big families do this as well, each getting one person to buy for – but not when there are small children involved.