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12 February 2019

Season’s greetings! Here’s how to pick the right one.

Confer Christmas card 2018

‘Tis the season for sending your customers and business partners your heartfelt wishes. You’ve probably put some thought into finding the best expression to do this in English, but what do you wish your Dutch and Flemish audience? And does it carry the right message?

That’s precisely what Miet Ooms wanted to know. Miet is a fellow translator who researches regional differences between Flanders and the Netherlands. To do this, she conducts short online surveys and converts the results of these into wonderfully insightful maps – a delight for language enthusiasts!

Miet also wanted to know how people express their season’s greetings, and if there is a difference in the words they use. She asked people, “What do you say at Christmas?”. Her fascinating findings can be seen here.

Map showing customary greetings in Belgium and the Netherlands

copyright Miet Ooms – http://taalverhalen.be

Let’s break it down a bit. The first thing to know is that the map shows the two regions in Europe where Dutch is spoken. To the north is the Netherlands, and to the south Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium). The border between the two countries is not demarcated as such, but you can tell where it is by looking at the symbols – in Flanders, these are mostly red and orange, while in the Netherlands, they are primarily green and blue.

The map itself shows that there is a difference in how people extend greetings to each other during the festive season.

In my own family, we wish each other a “zalig kerstmis” (which translates literally as “blessed Christmas”). As in many Flemish communities, this is an expression of culture and heritage – not of religious zeal. Catholicism has always played a significant role in the culture and history of Flanders, and many traditions and customs are derived from this. Both Catholic and non-Catholic Flemings still observe these traditions today.

Of course, not everybody shares this heritage or cares for that tradition, which is why many prefer to use “vrolijk kerstfeest” (“joyful”) instead of “zalig” – the equivalent of the French “joyeux Noel”. Not surprising, considering that French has long been the language of choice among the elite in Flanders and of Dutch nobility.

The further north one goes, the less common “vrolijk” and “zalig” become, making way for the more neutral “fijn” (“nice”).

The reference to Christmas, on the other hand, is much less common in the Netherlands. While uttering greetings that explicitly refer to Christmas is traditional in Flanders, in the Netherlands it is much more the expression of a religious denomination. Alluding to Christmas in the north appears to be much more defining (and thus less inclusive) than it is in the south.

All this clearly shows that there is a difference in how people greet one another in Flanders and the Netherlands during the festive season. If you want to address customers and business partners in both countries, these distinctions should not be ignored.

If you are making a banner for your .nl website, “fijne feestdagen” (“nice holidays”) will do nicely. In Flanders, a “vrolijk kerstfeest (“Merry Christmas”) will make people smile and is most inclusive. And if you really want to connect with people on both sides of the Dutch-Flemish border, you can’t go wrong with “prettige feestdagen” – with the added bonus that this also includes a Happy New Year!

As for myself, I will wish you a “zalig kerstmis”. At least you now know where that comes from!

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