For members


EXPLAINED: Why is May 1st significant in Germany?

May 1st to Germans welcomes the start of spring. But it also marks an annual public holiday called Labour Day which is observed nationwide and dates back over 130 years.

EXPLAINED: Why is May 1st significant in Germany?
A May 1st sign outside of a Berlin cafe in 2014. Photo: DPA

In Germany, May 1st is usually marked with a range of festivals, including everything from dancing around poles to chasing away evil spirits.

READ ALSO: Are you ready for Walpurgisnacht, Germany’s night of witches?

But the reason why banks, post offices, supermarkets and most other businesses are closed on this day has to do with the fact that it’s an occasion to celebrate workers’ rights. 

In 2022, however, May 1st falls on a Sunday which means most people will not get the day off work. Unlike some other countries, such as the UK and the USA, public holidays that fall on the weekend are not moved to a weekday so they will benefit more people (although some politicians are calling for that). 

Germany’s observance of Tag der Arbeit dates back to 1886 America, when a strike involving thousands of workers at Haymarket Square in Chicago began over calls for the legal establishment of an eight-hour work day.

Two days later, when the situation escalated, the police killed several picketers.

A depiction of the Haymarket riot in 1886 in Chicago. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At a protest rally the following day, an unknown person threw a bomb at the police as they tried to disperse the crowds, resulting in the deaths of several police officers and some civilians.

In memory of this event, hundreds of thousands of people in Europe celebrated the first Labour Day on May 1st, 1890 in demand for better working conditions and the implementation of the eight-hour day.

Around 100,000 people in Germany took part in strikes and demonstrations that year, according to the German Federation of Unions (DGB). An especially large number of workers demonstrated in Hamburg, with companies reacting by issuing redundancies and lockouts.

About 40 years later at the beginning of the Weimar Republic, the eight-hour day was agreed upon and the trade unions were recognised as appointed representatives of the working class.

But the economic crisis, mass unemployment and political unrest on the streets in Germany formed the background of Labour Day celebrations at the end of the 1920s.

May 1st, 1927 in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Fearing riots, police chief of Berlin at the time, Karl Zörgiebel, banned demonstrations on May 1st, 1929, and the German Communist Party resisted, calling for peaceful mass rallies. There were street fights and the police shot into the crowd. By the third of May that year more than 30 people had died and hundreds more were injured.

A few years later in 1933, the Nazis declared the first day in May a paid national holiday for German workers, staging a propagandistic mass spectacle in Berlin. Just one day later, Nazi party members stormed into trade union buildings and destroyed the free trade unions.

Almost one year after the end of the Second World War, in April 1946, the Allied Control Council confirmed the first of May as a public holiday. Every year in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 to 1990, the day was celebrated with parades as an “International Workers’ Day for Peace and Socialism”.

In 1990, the year of German reunification, trade unions celebrated the 100th anniversary of Tag der Arbeit.

Marches for workers’ rights

Nowadays the number of people who participate in rallies or demonstrations in Germany has waned. Many employees use the day off (if there is one) to go on a short trip or simply to relax or barbecue in a park.

In Berlin, one of the largest marches campaigning for workers’ rights nationwide typically occurs on May 1st in the Kreuzberg district.

As most Covid restrictions have eased, some rallies will still take place on Sunday. Throughout the pandemic, trade unions and alliances partly moved their actions online.

Loads of people at Myfest in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district in 2017. Photo: DPA

Mass riots first took place in Kreuzberg just over 30 years ago.

Through a combination of gentrification along with changed tactics from the local council and police, violence on May Day has gone the same way as cheap rents and nightclub squats.

In normal years, May Days, such as the Berlin Myfest, are cultural celebrations, with police content to play a lower profile to the musicians and artists which entertain the crowds throughout the day and into the evening. 

Though set on varying dates, Labour Day is today observed as a national public holiday in many other countries worldwide such as in France, Australia and Canada. On the whole the Haymarket riot in Chicago is considered significant as the origin of global Labour Day observances for workers.

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For members


Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays – and will it ever change?

Germany's strict ban on shops opening on Sundays can be a shock to foreigners. We looked at the culture around it, and spoke to one of the country's largest trade unions to find out if things are ever likely to change.

Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays - and will it ever change?

It’s Sunday. You’ve invited people for dinner, but you’ve forgotten the most important ingredient. Tough luck – you’ll either have to do without or wait until Monday because your local shops are shut. 

Most of us are familiar with this inconvenience, and perhaps you’ve even found yourself screaming: “Why?” in frustration in front of a locked-up supermarket. 

But it’s something us adopted Germans have had to get used to. We decided to take a look at the reasons behind Germany’s ban on Sunday shopping – and to find out if it might change in future. 

Where does the rule come from?

The Sonntagsruhe or ‘Sunday rest’ principle is an integral part of German culture, so much so that it is enshrined in the German constitution (Grundgesetz).

Article 140 of the law, which has remained unchanged since 1919, says: “Sundays and state-recognised public holidays remain protected by law as days of rest from work and spiritual upliftment.” 

But the practice of not working on Sunday has been around for much longer. The idea that the seventh day of the week is a day of rest dates back to the old testament and was declared a general day of rest across the Roman Empire as early as 321, by Roman Emperor Constantine.

In the centuries since, however, most of Europe has gradually relaxed the strict ban on commercial activities on Sundays. 

But in Germany, the rules remain restrictive. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon partly because of religious reasons, and also in relation to the interests of workers.

Germany’s biggest trade union Verdi spelled out their view. “It’s not ‘modern’ to work seven days a week,” they told The Local. “That’s the Middle Ages.” 

What exactly does the law mean?

On the face of it, the German law forbids all forms of work on Sundays and public holidays, though numerous exceptions are laid out in the Working Time Act. 

As well as emergency and rescue services, hospitals, nursing and care facilities, exceptions include cultural and sporting activities, and the hospitality sector. 

Another notable exemption to the rule is bakeries, which are allowed to open for three hours on Sundays – which is why you may often find a long queue at your local baker if you want to get your freshly baked Brötchen on Sunday morning. 

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery.

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

Illustrating how seriously the rule can be taken in Germany, there have even been cases of bakeries being sued for selling bread for too long on Sundays.

Shops, however, aren’t exempt from the rule and, the only way they can legally open on a Sunday is on a so-called verkaufsoffener Sonntag – Sunday trading day.

In most federal states, shops are allowed to open on between four and eight Sundays per year, and the States can decide when these should be. The chosen days must, however, be linked to a relevant occasion – such as a local festival, a market, a trade fair, or a similar event. 

Sunday openings also have to be recognisable as an exception to the general rule and Sunday openings that have already been approved can often be later overturned by the courts.

How strictly is the rule enforced?

Retailers who break the rules and open for business on Sunday can face fines ranging between €500 and €2,500.

The strictness of enforcement can vary widely between different regions.

In Berlin, for example, you can still find lots of Spätis (late night shops) open on Sundays. Although this is technically illegal, the authorities in the capital seem to take more of a relaxed approach to enforcement than in other states. 

A "Späti" late-night shop in Berlin.

A “Späti” late-night shop in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Florian Schuh

In the traditionally Catholic state of Bavaria, for example, the law is much more strictly guarded and enforced.

READ ALSO: Why Germany has strict shop opening hours

Is the law likely to change?

A survey by Spiegel in 2017 showed that 61 percent of Germans wanted to be able to shop on a Sunday, and this desire is shared by the trade industry.

The German Trade Association, for example, which represents around 400,000 independent companies, has strongly criticised Germany’s refusal to budge on the issue of Sunday openings on several occasions and argued that Sunday opening is also popular with staff, with many shop assistants appreciating the work in a more relaxed atmosphere.

In its latest statement on the issue, the association stated that, especially after following the economic impact of the pandemic, many retailers would benefit greatly from being able to open on Sundays. 


“It is remarkable that in no other EU country Sunday opening is as restricted as in Germany,” the association said. “Even in strongly Catholic EU countries such as Italy and Poland, shoppers can generally shop on Sundays. The same applies to France, although they place great value on culture and socialising.”

However, even if there is a widespread desire in some quarters to allow Sunday trading, an amendment to the constitution would require the consent of two-thirds of the German parliament. Also, there remains strong opposition to changing the rule from many workers’ groups and trade unions.

Trade union Verdi, which regularly files complaints against states and organisations which seek to deviate from Sunday trading restrictions, said that Sunday rest is still very important for workers.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb | Arne Dedert

A spokesperson said: “We have just one day a week when employers can’t stop us from going to football together, meeting friends, attending cultural events, or spending free time with the whole family.

“And we want to keep it that way. There are six days a week when we can go shopping, take the car to the garage, do our banking, or get the package delivered from the online retailer. On Sunday, there has to be peace and quiet.”

The Verdi spokesperson added that it’s important to think about “work-life balance, and not about being available 24/7 for a company”.

We also asked the union if the law looks set to change in the near future.

The spokesperson said: “Sunday, which is a non-working day for most people, has so far been protected by the majority of political parties in Germany.

“Verdi, with its almost two million members, continues to work to ensure that working on Sunday does not become an everyday occurrence.”

So it appears that the culture shock for many non-Germans of shops being closed on Sundays won’t change anytime soon. 

READ ALSO: From nudity to sandwiches – the biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany