'Tis the Season to Break Bread, Need Dough

Germans grouse at early, more commercial Christmas

THE United States isn't the only nation where Santa's sales machine gets cranked up more than a month before Christmas.

A seasonal hype barrage is also bombarding Germany. Even in the country that popularized Christmas trees and Santa Claus, rampant com-mercialism now keeps company with tradition.

Chia pets and other tawdry gifts pack the shelves of German stores. And come Dec. 25, if retailers have their way, dozens of items with little or no practical use will find places under Christmas trees across the country. By US standards, the German sales blitz is tame. But talk to Germans, and they, just like Americans, gripe about the commercialization of Christmas.

``As soon as the summer is over and fall begins, the Christmas business starts. It's my impression that it's starting earlier each year that goes by,'' says Elisabeth Gross as she shops in downtown Bonn recently.

``I wish it would be a little quieter and a time for more reflection - something not necessarily in a religious sense,'' Ms. Gross adds.

Traditionally, Christmas sales seasons in Germany and the United States didn't get under way until late November. In Germany, the hoopla started with Advent, the four-week period leading up to Christmas, celebrated by both Roman Catholics and Protestants. In the US, Thanksgiving kicked off the Christmas shopping spree.

But in recent years, retailers in both countries have been jumping the gun, going into Christmas mode come the first of November. This year, it all makes for a mildly surreal scene in Germany's Rhine River region. Because of the wet, warm autumn in the Rhineland, some trees still sport green leaves, contrasting sharply with the decorated store windows heralding the Christmas season.

With earlier Christmas shopping and a heightened consumption impulse, some Germans are having trouble keeping up with the Schultzes.

``Christmas ... has become too expensive,'' says Wilhelm Schuck, a pensioner, explaining that he and his wife have seven children. Given their family's size, they can no longer afford to compete in the Christmas present derby.

``We abandoned the tradition of presents. We just sit together during the holiday and talk,'' Mr. Schuck says.

MANY Germans approach their holiday shopping with a mixture of anticipation and dread. German retailing is renowned for rude service, and for a crowded shopping environment that can be comparable to a Rugby scrum.

Retailing is also choked by a bevy of regulations, meaning stores must close by 6:30 on weeknights, except on Thursdays, when they can stay open until 8:30. On Saturdays closing time is normally early afternoon, and Sunday shopping is verboten.

The concept of 24-hour shopping is a long way from gaining popular acceptance in Germany. Recent attempts to loosen regulations governing store hours have met fierce resistance from small shop owners and employees.

During the Christmas season, stores stay open a little later on Saturdays, but it's not enough to relieve the pressure generated by the frenzied throngs of shoppers.

``For me, stress and Christmas are inseparable. As far as shopping is concerned, the crowds get more and more on my nerves,'' Michaela Paffen says.

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