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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.

Shoppers at a drugstore in Mainz.
Shoppers at a drugstore in Mainz. Just don't except it to be open on a Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

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

Member comments

  1. Yes, lets ask a union what is best for the majority of people…..The comment of working 7 days a week and being in the middle ages is pure entertainment. If a grocery store is open 7 days a week, does a union spokesperson really believe that the same people are working for all the open hours? Its hilarious. Also the middle age comment, yes because we all know the internet, government, banking etc is leading is into the future. If we had grocery stores working in middle age conditions, that would allow it to be more in line with the rest of German technology no?

  2. Germany, the country that loves to say “No, we can´t/ won´t do that”,
    without any real world logic whatsoever.

  3. Good for the Germans that respect is paid to the biblical day of rest. I know there are hundreds of examples where Christian principles are flouted, but 2 wrongs don’t make a right.
    6 days at which businesses are accessible for the public ought to be enough.

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GERMAN TRADITIONS

Why Germans are being warned not to cycle drunk on Father’s Day

Germany has a special tradition of drunken antics on May 26th each year. But doctors are concerned that a brigade of drunk cyclists could end up in accidents.

Why Germans are being warned not to cycle drunk on Father's Day

What’s going on? 

Just a few days before Father’s Day on May 26th, German doctors issued an urgent warning for people to avoid riding their bicycles under the influence. 

According to physicians at the Asklepios clinic in Hamburg, the May 26th bank holiday – which is both Ascension Day and Father’s Day – is the time of year when the majority of alcohol-related bike and car accidents occur. 

Even New Year’s Eve – a  day of firework anarchy and all-night boozing – tends to be outstripped by Father’s Day when it comes to drunken antics and accidents in Germany. And doctors say the problem is getting worse. 

A few months after the start of the pandemic in 2020, revellers set an unfortunate record on Father’s Day when a whopping 657 bike accidents were recorded. Around half of the cyclists – 312 – were under the influence of alcohol at the time.

This year, following the scrapping of most Covid rules, there are concerns that things could get even more crazy than usual. 

READ ALSO: What you should know about Austria and Germany’s ‘Stammtisch’ tradition

Why are there so many drunk cyclists on Father’s Day? 

For more religious types, Ascension Day may be best known at a time to celebrate Jesus’ ascension into heaven to be reunited with the Holy Father. 

But in Germany, this celebration of the father/son relationship has transitioned over the years. 

In fact, Father’s Day in Germany isn’t so much a day when children hastily buy ‘Dad’ gifts and cards with pints of beer on them on Amazon (though gifts are appreciated). 

It’s more of celebration of male bonding, where groups of men do “traditional” things like binge-drinking and heading out on the town with a strict “no women allowed” policy. In some places, it’s even referred to more often as Männertag (Men’s Day) than Vatertag (Father’s Day). 

Man with Bollerwagen Father's Day

A man pulls a Bollerwagen loaded up with drinks on Father’s Day in North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: picture alliance / Ina Fassbender/dpa | Ina Fassbender

The tradition apparently dates back to the 18th century, when the day was dedicated to a celebration of fathers. Men would be apparently be carted into the village and the man who had fathered the most children would receive a prize (which was normally a large ham).

These days, the cart has remained a prominent feature of the revelry. 

In fact, one of the most popular Father’s Day activities is to fill up a trolley or Bollerwagen with beers and go on a booze-soaked walk or cycle trip with a group of male friends.

Another option is to cut out the middle man and simply rent a beer bike – a big bar on wheels that careers through the town – for your group.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t always lead to the best road safety practices. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Germans get wholly wasted on Ascension Day

But isn’t it all just a bit of fun? 

A lot of people obviously cherish their day-drinking rituals on Father’s Day, and the raucous traditions is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

That’s despite the best efforts of politicians like EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who criticised the fact that fathers didn’t spend enough time with their children on Father’s Day back when she was German Family Minister. 

But doctors are keen to highlight the dangers of being legless while in charge of a bicycle. 

“Riding a bicycle under the influence of alcohol significantly increases the risk of falling,” said Michael Hoffmann, head physician at the Clinic for Trauma Surgery, Orthopaedics and Sports Orthopaedics at the Asklepios Klinik St. Georg.

For drunk people who do get injured, it’s also more difficult to assess the severity of a head injury – since coordination isn’t generally the strong point of the inebriated anyway. 

Father's Day

A group of men wheel their “Dad
Mobile” through Weßling, Bavaria, on Father’s Day. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

Studies also show that the risk of serious or even fatal injuries is about twice as high for drunken cyclists as for sober ones.

“The impaired reflexes under the influence of alcohol certainly play a role here,” explained the head physician of neurosurgery at the Asklepios Clinic North – Heidberg, Paul Kremer, adding that e-bikes were particularly risky.

“They reach higher speeds without much effort, which an intoxicated person can hardly assess properly,” he said. 

Unfortunately, Father’s Day can also be a dangerous time for those who keep their wits about them, too. Apparently, sober cyclists can often suffer injuries when they’re involved in accidents with drunken day-trippers. 

“Anyone who rides a bicycle under the influence of alcohol not only runs the risk of injuring themselves, but also endangers other road users,” Hoffmann warned.

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