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CULTURE

Is Germany falling out of love with Abendbrot?

A light evening meal made up of bread, cold cuts of meat and cheese has been part of German food culture for over a hundred years - but is the Abendbrot tradition dying out?

The traditional German Abendbrot
The traditional German Abendbrot. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

Settling down to some bread, meats, cheese, salad and spreads between 5 and 7pm has been part of many Germans’ schedules for more than 100 years. 

But in the modern working world and the globalised era of the low-carb dinner – based on the recommendation from some nutrition experts to eat few carbohydrates in the evening – Abendbrot isn’t fashionable anymore, and some say it could be on the brink of extinction.

In southern European countries like Spain and Greece people usually eat a warm meal in the evening – and at a later time than in Germany. Bread with sausage and cheese is considered a starter at best, and not a full meal that is finished in time for the evening news on TV.

Meat and bread is traditionally part of Abendbrot.

Meat and bread is traditionally part of Abendbrot. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

How did Abendbrot develop?

Germans traditionally enjoy a hot sit-down lunch between 12 and 2pm. That’s why people began opting for a simple Abendbrot – translated literally as ‘evening bread’ – later on in the day.

According to cultural scientists, this custom of eating cold food in the evening dates back to the 1920s. At that time, industry dominated everyday life – in contrast to the more agricultural structures in countries like Italy and France.

READ ALSO: Five delicious breads you have to try in Germany

Canteens were becoming common in German factories. Those who dined there at lunchtime often no longer wanted a hot meal in the evening. As work became less physically demanding thanks to technological advances, many people preferred a lighter meal in the evening: bread, sausage, cheese, some raw vegetables – and nothing more. 

Abendbrot became even more popular after the war. At that time, the number of working women also increased. The quickly prepared evening meal became a tradition in many families. 

The structure of eating a bigger meal at lunchtime can still be seen in German workplaces today. Many companies still have canteens serving a wide variety of hot food where employees are encouraged to dine during their break. Eating a sandwich at your desk is usually frowned upon. 

Is Abendbrot popular now?

Some people – especially older generations – are still fond of the tradition of eating a larger meal at lunchtime and then having Abendbrot later on. 

Despite it being simple, fans of the humble dinner say it’s never boring. As is well known, Germany is proud of its thousands of different types of bread – from Roggenbrot (rye bread) to Zwiebelbrot (onion bread), and its many varieties of sausages. It’s often served with gherkins, radishes, lots of different cheeses and hard-boiled eggs.

Bread rolls in a store

Germany has a wide variety of breads. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

But millions of Germans now lead a life without it: the trend away from the cold snack dinner is clearly visible from Sylt in the north to the Allgäu in the south.

In the Allensbach study “So is(s)t Deutschland” (how Germany eats) for the food company Nestlé, researchers found that dinner has become the most important meal for many people during the week. In 2019, 38 percent named dinner as the main meal of the day, compared to one third of the population 10 years earlier.

QUIZ: How well do you know German food culture?

The Covid pandemic, which left millions working at home for months, has allowed many families to get together in the middle of the day. But experts don’t see a major revival of lunch, despite more people working from home. This could be down to work pressures, with people unable to relax, cook and eat a big meal during their break. 

Nestlé spokesman Alexander Antonoff said that all indications show that the trend towards having a warm main meal in the evening will continue. He said that getting together after the working day fits more into the increasingly de-structured everyday life of millions of households in central Europe.

Despite all this, artist and university lecturer Ingke Günther from Giessen doesn’t  believe that the once popular Abendbrot will disappear completely in Germany. But it has lost the role it played for decades.

“That is because the realities of work and life have become more diverse,” said Günther.

“But among older people and in families with children, the evening meal is often still the rule.”

And in some urban areas, where organic bakeries have developed a new bread culture, there is a conscious return to Abendbrot, with a bit more of a hipster vibe. 

Vocabulary

Custom – (der) Brauch

Recognisable/apparent – erkennbar

Starter – (die) Vorspeise

Meal – (die) Mahlzeit

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GERMANY EXPLAINED

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. 

READ ALSO:

“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

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