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10 festive English idioms everyone should know

10 festive English idioms everyone should know

To truly perfect your English, you need to know your idioms. Idioms are phrases used to describe a feeling or situation, and often mean something entirely different from the literal words used. For example, when someone says “let’s kill two birds with one stone”, they are referring to completing two things at the same time with one action (so you and the birds can breathe a sigh of relief.)

Although idioms can be hard to grasp at first, they’re well worth learning because native speakers throw them into conversation all the time. In fact, there’s such a wide range of them used in the English language, that you can create a whole category of idioms that are perfectly suited to the festive season.

So, with the holiday period on the horizon, here are 10 English idioms with a festive twist that everyone should learn ahead of the celebrations.

1. Christmas came early this year

What does it mean? When something good but surprising happens.

How do you use it? If you experience something unexpected that you’re grateful for, you can use this expression to show your delight. Perhaps you received an unexpected gift from your friend, or got some really good news about a job you applied for — it looks like Christmas came early this year! You can use this idiom all year round — in fact, the further away Christmas is, the more joy you express.

Example: “I got a surprise promotion at work today. Looks like Christmas came early this year!”

2. Good things come in small packages

What does it mean? Don't judge something by how big it is.

How do you use it? Use this idiom when you want to suggest something small has positive qualities, attributes, or values that exceed your expectations. It's an optimistic way of expressing that physical size has little to do with worth. You can easily use this idiom to describe actual gifts at Christmas time (especially when your sibling complains about the size of your present), giving this idiom a festive twist.

Example: "I know the box is small, but remember, good things come in small packages!"

3. Lit up like a Christmas tree

What does it mean? To display visible joy.

How do you use it? Use this phrase when talking about a person’s involuntary but positive physical reaction, like a gleam in a person's eyes or a huge grin. This idiom describes when someone’s joy or happiness is so visible, their facial expression “lights up”. This expression draws comparison to a traditional Christmas tree, which is usually decorated with bright lights and shiny ornaments.

Example: “Her face lit up like a Christmas tree when she realized it was a surprise party!”

4. The more the merrier

What does it mean? The more people in attendance, the better it will be.

How do you use it? Use this phrase to tell someone that the more people invited, the more fun it will be. This is appropriate for any gathering of people, such as parties, dinners, or trips. The term “merry” — meaning happy or jolly — is often used at Christmas, such as in the common festive greeting “Merry Christmas”. With more people around, there’s more room for fun, diverse conversations, and general enjoyment.

Example: "I’m organizing a games night tonight. Invite as many people as you want — the more, the merrier!"

5. To go on a wild goose chase

What does it mean? To complete a hopeless task.

How do you use it? Have you ever found yourself looking for something and ended up convincing yourself that it just didn’t exist in the first place? Well, then you might describe yourself as being on a wild goose chase. Your searching was pointless, aimless, and tiresome! This idiom has a festive twist because goose is a very traditional dish to enjoy over Christmas.

Example: “I've looked everywhere for my house keys and I can’t find them! I feel like I’m going on a wild goose chase here.”

6. The proof is in the pudding

What does it mean? You only know if something is good by trying it.

How do you use it? Use this phrase when you want to try out something new, but are not sure how it will go. After all, you won’t know if something is good until you try it. Remember — despite its pudding-based phrasing, it doesn’t have to be about food specifically and could refer to anything from trying a new restaurant to testing some new shoes. The festive twist comes from Christmas pudding being a famous cake made with dried fruits soaked in rum eaten around Christmas time in some parts of the world.

Example: “He told me doing yoga every week would change my life. I’m skeptical but I guess the proof is in the pudding.”

7. Like turkeys voting for Christmas

What does it mean? To make a decision that is harmful to yourself.

How do you use it? This idiom is used to describe actions that go against your own well-being and personal interests. The phrase compares your bad decision to turkeys choosing to have Christmas – turkeys are usually eaten as traditional dishes in England and America. Therefore Christmas would not be in their best interest.

Example: "Choosing the most complicated board game with my very competitive friends – feels like turkeys voting for Christmas."

8. Be there with bells on

What does it mean? To be excited and enthusiastic.

How do you use it? If you are particularly excited about an event, like a party, you might use this phrase to exaggerate just how pumped you are. If you arrive somewhere with “bells on” you are sending out a very eager and happy attitude. In the UK, bells are traditionally rung at midnight to celebrate the start of Christmas.

Example: "Karaoke night tonight? Count me in, I'll be there with bells on, ready to hit the high notes!"

9. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

What does it mean? To be ungrateful.

How do you use it? The idea is that when you receive a gift or something for free, you shouldn’t question it or judge its value. It’s considered rude to look a gift horse in the mouth as it means you’re examining the worth of something you received as a gift. People use this idiom when someone is ungrateful for a gift given out of goodwill, for example during Christmas.

Example: "Complaining about a free meal is like looking a gift horse in the mouth."

10. A Christmas miracle

What does it mean? Something highly unlikely but wonderful.

How do you use it? “It’s a Christmas miracle!” is an expression used to describe something unexpected and highly improbable. This could be something great, almost magical, that you can’t quite believe has happened. Or it can be said somewhat sarcastically to describe a situation that, though not quite a miracle, is extremely rare (as per the example below). This idiom, although decidedly festive, can be used at any time of year.

Example: "Wow — the whole family has agreed on a movie to watch together. It’s a Christmas miracle!"

We hope these idioms help decorate your conversations over the festive period. Happy holidays!

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