German reunification in 30 words : #7: Jahresendflügelfigur
To mark 30 years of German reunification, we're taking you on a linguistic journey through 30 key German words and phrases that charted Germany's Cold War division, reunification and what happened next. Today: Jahresendflügelfigur.
Berlin - We've already mentioned East Germany's secularism in our entry on Rache des Papstes. Religious communities were actively discriminated against in the GDR's early years. The country's leaders may have subscribed to the communist idea of religion as "the opium of the people" and tried to enforce state atheism, but beloved traditions like Christmas were harder to get rid of.
As a result, authorities tried to revamp December festivities as a celebration not of the Christian holiday, but of the new year - a concept borrowed from the Soviet Union. That led to some amusing terminology: a Christmas angel (Weihnachtsengel) was officially known as a Jahresendflügelfigur - an "end-of-the-year winged figure".
It might sound funny, but it wasn't the only familiar Christmas symbol to get a secular re-branding in East Germany. Your Jahresendflügelfigur wouldn't sit on top of your Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree), but your Jahresendbaum (end-of-the-year tree), and instead of a chocolate Santa, you might get gifted a Schokoladenhohlkörper (hollow chocolate body).
It's not exactly known where the word originated, but linguists and craftspeople who lived in the GDR (ironically, traditional German Christmas angels carved from wood originated from the Ore Mountains region in the east of Germany) say the word and others like it were thought up by officials and imposed from above. Former East German citizens say they recall seeing the term on signs in shops and at markets, but that no normal people ever said Jahresendflügelfigur.
These odd-sounding words aren't the only example of Christian traditions being replaced with secular state-sanctioned jargon. The Jugendweihe, which had existed as a secular alternative to Christian coming-of-age ceremonies in Germany since the 1800s, became more widespread and more grounded in socialism. The 14-year-old participants would pledge their commitment to socialist ideals and defending them from "imperialist attacks".