lt is autumn, children are back in school, the leaves are starting to turn, and something that I have never seen before has happened in Germany. Literally overnight, gingerbread cookies and chocolate Santa Clauses have popped up on supermarket shelves, and Christmas carols have started filling the air – in September.
And now, long before the beginning of Advent, the four-week lead-in to Christmas, Germans are rebelling.
Tired of what they see as the creeping encroachment of American-style commercialism into old Europe, they want the government to step in and say no to selling Christmas items before it is time. At least that’s what most Germans said in an online survey released last week.
According to the survey, done by the polling institute YouGov for the news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 1 in 3 Germans want the government to regulate when stores can start selling Christmas gingerbread cakes and other Christmas goodies. Most of the survey's 1,000 respondents say that that date should be Nov. 30. Half say the early display of Christmas commercialism erodes the meaning of Christmas.
In most of the world, shopping has become a Sunday pastime. Not in Germany. In fact, its Constitution protects Sundays as days of rest.
The country also clearly defines its Christmas season as starting with Advent, a celebration that Germans take seriously – perhaps more so than most of their European neighbors.
On the First Sunday of Advent, families set up an advent wreath and begin carving out time to bake spiced cakes and cookies, including Christbaumgebäcke (Christmas tree pastry), which decorate the tree. On Dec. 6, children leave letters on their windowsills for the Christkind, a figure dressed in white robes and a golden crown who distributes gifts, à la St. Nikolas. Throughout Advent, they make gingerbread houses and other goodies, and families invite each other for coffees on each of the four Sundays.
The march of tradition is reassuring, especially for someone like myself, who grew up in France and never got invited to an Advent coffee nor baked special cookies ahead of Christmas. I never experienced the thrill of waiting for the Christkind to fill my stocking with nuts and mandarin oranges on Dec. 6.
No Sunday shopping
But even as Germans push back against commercialism, it is threatening the traditions of yore. Witness the attempts by cities from Frankfurt to Berlin to turn Advent Sundays into Christmas shopping days.
To be sure, some of Germany's 16 states have successfully begun chipping away at the sacrosanct no-shopping-on-Sunday law, allowing stores to hold a certain number of Verkaufsoffene Sonntage, or "open-sale Sundays," per year. Some cities even allow shopping on one or two Advent Sundays.
But when the German capital moved to allow stores to open on all four Advent Sundays a few years ago, churches, backed by labor unions, fought back, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. They won. The highest court, ruling that Sundays had to remain days of rest and "spiritual elevation," overturned the Berlin law in 2009.
Still, "Christmas in September" is poking at Germans' resolve, even as it's clear that most want to keep Christmas at bay – at least, until its special time.