Yuletide greetings from China

Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent for British daily The Times, gets in the Christmas spirit with toxic Chinese toys and Yuletide pawnshops.

Yuletide greetings from China
Photo: DPA

I don’t need an Advent calendar to tell me that Christmas is hurtling towards us like a runaway train without brakes.

No, all I have to do is glance at Germany’s best-selling sensationalist newspaper Bild.

Precisely three weeks before Christmas – same procedure as every year – it carries an article with the headline: “Cancer-causing toxins found in children’s toys! How bad is it really?”

All Bild wants to do, of course, is protect our children. “Don’t buy any toys that smell strongly of chemicals,” the paper wisely warns us. Or is it perhaps a subtle attempt to persuade grandmothers to buy boring but non-toxic German-made wooden toys rather than Chinese plastic junk? Whatever the reason, the annual toy-horror-show is a fixed part of Germany’s holiday calendar.

Other dates to note: November 23-30, the pre-Advent week, when 32 percent of German women buy their Christmas presents. And of course December 23, when 20 percent of German men – OK, I don’t have an actual survey, but I’ve chatted with the shop assistants at Berlin’s fancy KaDeWe department store – buy presents for their partners. On average they take 12 minutes to decide on the gift for that someone special.

In any case, the national Advent calendar should be extended to December 27: the day Germans rush back to the shops to exchange their unwanted presents. Open the doors to that calendar window and you would probably see a picture of a frustrated shop cashier tearing out her hair.

Now I am not claiming that Germans turn into robots, consumer-automatons, at Christmastime. But there are, shall we say, distinct buying habits that can be tracked just as biologists follow the migration patterns of birds or the hibernation behaviour of grizzly bears.

But this year, pre-Christmas strategy seems to be a little different. People are busily mobilising their financial resources in order to fund their Yuletide habits. The reality is that most Germans feel that they are worse off than a few years ago – Christmas is just the moment when you realise it. As a result many people are cashing in their reserves in order to spend on presents.

Pawnshops are springing up everywhere; I keep expecting my local Kebab shop to set up a stand buying and selling gold any day now. The prices of the precious metals are going through the roof and jewellers will tell you that more and more women are selling their bracelets.

At my supermarket in western Berlin, the notice board has become a snapshot of a hard Christmas. Somebody is offering a biography of former chancellor and local hero Willy Brandt for a measly €8, another person is parting with his beloved lambskin coat, and even children are selling their Barbies and Playmobil sets. It’s as if the whole community is on a leaking lifeboat and needs to shed weight quickly, as if everything has to be converted into cash before December 24.

Is this not what Merkel’s government wants? Spend, spend, spend – boost domestic demand and keep up growth in the coming months? Well, yes. Except that a lot of this money is being spent on goods made in China. The German consumer Christmas is Chinese; 75 percent of the toys being sold are made there. One factory outside Shanghai produces 10,000 Christmas items for Germany. Plastic snowmen with plastic carrots for noses, Santa hats with bells on, and tin angels with harps.

The only German item in German living rooms this Christmas is likely to the Christmas tree. But if you get a practical plastic one with flashing lights that will, of course, be made in China. Here’s hoping your Tannenbaum wasn’t made in the same factory as the toxic toys underneath it.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.