BERLIN The Germans are so strong on their family values they want the
state to enforce them. They're debating now whether shops should be
shuttered on Sunday by law. It's a burning issue in coffee shops, on the
street and in the newspapers, hotter than whether Angela Merkel should
send more troops to Afghanistan.
Germany's highest court has ruled that keeping Sunday a day of rest
benefits everyone, like it or not. So buying a head of lettuce,
repairing a bike or purchasing a pair of shoes is not for Sunday. The
ruling is especially disappointing to Berlin shopkeepers who find
flexible Sunday hours particularly profitable.
Most clergymen, eager to reach the multitudes (the more parishioners in
the pews, the louder the hymns), have greeted the ruling with enthusiasm
if not awe. The initial complaint against extended Sunday hours was
filed by leaders of both Protestant and Catholic churches, who argued
that a clause in the German constitution supports the day of rest as
important to "spiritual elevation." The labor unions pushed for Sunday
as a family day that even atheists could enjoy. Under the ruling, shops
will no longer enjoy Berlin's expansive policy of staying open 10
Sundays a year, including the four consecutive Sundays before Christmas,
although it did not completely overturn the principle for some Sunday
openings. Curbs on hours are expected in other cities, too.
Fortunately for the thousands of tourists who flock to Germany from all
over the continent for the traditional Christmas markets, the new
regulations aren't effective this Christmas season and they can
visit retail shops on Sunday, too. More than 2,500 such markets have
opened across Germany this year, and shoppers are expected to leave a
lot of Euros behind. A typical shopper to a Christmas market spends
about 30 Euros, almost $50, and if my own haul of scarves, toys and
jewelry is typical, that's a modest estimate.
Dozens of little wooden huts, or stalls decorated with tiny, twinkling
Christmas lights, typically stand in neat rows on town squares and
plazas. They're tucked into alleys, courtyards and side streets,
traditionally offering wooden toys, tree ornaments, nativity scenes and
an enormous array of holiday food: gingerbread in Munich, figurines
fashioned of dried plums in Frankfurt and stollen, a Christmas cake, in
Dresden. It's even possible occasionally to find a hand crafted Hanukkah
In a typical Christmas market in Dortmund, Hans-Peter Arens sells famous
hams, and his son nearby offers mulled Gluewein, the popular seasonal
wine. They're among four generations of the family operating a Christmas
market. "I know that the church encourages reflection," he tells der
Spiegel, the German news magazine, "but I can only be reflective when
the cash register is ringing."
It's easy to see why the state-enforced day of rest is not popular with
merchants. The Chamber of Commerce scoffs that the court is "out of
touch with reality" and argues that eliminating shopping days in a
recession doesn't make business sense. Tourists who come to the city
only on weekends will take their Sunday business elsewhere, or buy
online where there are no restrictions.
"This ruling is like Marie Antoinette saying, 'Let them bake cake,'"
complains a querulous patron at a bakery counter, eager to return to buy
fresh bread on his day of rest. But support for the ban cuts across
political and religious lines, left and right. Many Germans, religious
and not, support Sunday's "specialness," if not its sanctity.
"The judges did not just endorse the division of time marked by
Christianity," observes Die Welt, a conservative newspaper. "We people
as social animals are duty bound and justified in dividing our time (by
being) together." The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung agrees, noting that
those who want "to play cards, go for a walk or simply laze around" can
use a quiet Sunday, too. The center-left Suddeutsche Zeitung concedes
the decision sounds antiquated because it runs against the "economic
liberal zeitgeist." But that's all right because the enforced day off is
a benefit to everyone.
Germans, like other Europeans, often sneer at American capitalism for
commercializing culture around the clock, but as in so much other
attitudinizing, where you stand always depends on where you're sitting.
Europeans generally don't like to work as hard as Americans, who demand
marginal tax rates and economic incentives that Germans, French and
Italians can hardly fathom.
Americans prize family values, too, and attend church and synagogue at
much higher rates than anywhere else in the world. Fights over Sunday
closing, enforced by "blue laws," were once a staple of small-town
America, too. We no longer rely on the government to tell us how to
enjoy our Sundays, but it's hard to find figurines of dried plums in