Sunday morning I spent some time searching for an open bakery in the center of Bonn in order to buy the freshly baked bread for the Christmas Eve dinner. For the next three days, Germany will not show any signs of life – the streets are empty, all the businesses and shops, including the supermarkets, are closed. That is the law.
In Germany, as in many other European countries, the religion keeps playing an important social role, so numerous laws and rules apparently still based on religious grounds.
Technically, the german’s federal constitution proclaims that the church is separate from State, and hence Germany is a secular state. However, to Germans, there seems to be no contradiction between the laicism and, at the same time, the existence of the church tax as well as the religious limitations during the weekend (Sunday) and the holidays (closed shops, event restrictions etc.).
During my first months in Germany, I attended a lecture from the French Cultural Center dealing with the analysis of the secularity in Germany compared to France. Germany is often criticized for the fact that the State is not actually sufficiently separate from the Church. Whereas France positions itself as a purely neutral secular state.
All along the lecture, german theologists endeavored to prove, that in reality, it is not the case, and even if German laws have a certain degree of connection to the religion, Germany does have more religious neutrality and freedom than France. I took away a couple of interesting ideas from that lecture, but all in all my opinion about the interference of the religion into the German society remained unchanged.
Coming back to the holidays and Sundays. The holidays and Sundays are regulated by the regional state laws, as for example the Law on the Holidays in the North Rhine Westphalia “Feiertagsgesetz Nordrhein-Westfalen“.
1. The law clearly states what one cannot do during the holidays and Sundays. For instance, the business of car washing, the flea and other recreational markets (with several exceptions such as seasonal markets) are restricted. Likewise, one cannot plan to move from one apartment (or house) to another on that days.
2. Most of the commercial and business activity is also not possible. Here again, there are various exceptions. For example, the provision of services related to the relaxation and recovery, including the fitness studios, saunas, and solarium, are perfectly authorized. Furthermore, the transportation business, as well as the reparation centers, gas stations (obviously) can maintain its service during the holidays.
3. On Sundays and holidays from 6 to 11 A.M. during the main worship service, it is prohibited to hold any events that are “irreconcilable with the worship service”, including recreational or sportive events.
The latter rule took me aback, since I recall clearly that two last marathons in Bonn (where I took part) were held on Sunday and started at 9 A.M. So I re-read the article and found the clause mentioning that local authorities can “bargain” the authorization for the event with the church and start the event before 11 A.M. So looks like the agreement was reached.
4. Additionally, there are specific rules related to the “quiet holidays” – the Remembrance Day and the day of the commemoration of deads. On those days the art and dance performances are forbidden (theater, opera, musicals, ballet).
The law serves two main purposes: the preservation of the Sunday´s Calm – Sonntagsruhe (for example from the noise nuisance) and the protection of the Sunday´s (= holiday) worship service.
Here I’ve covered specifically the German law, but France has the similar kind of law (it dates back from 1906 but is continuously complemented with numerous derogations and exceptions). In contrast to the German law, it doesn’t have any direct reference to the religious worship or religion, as a whole. Moreover, as opposed to Germany, French law sparks off intense debates on the total or partial abolition of such law. For example, I recall that in 2010-13 the Leroy Merlin store was fighting for its right to be open on Sundays.
One can have the different attitude towards this law.
The direct reference to the religion in the German law might be incompatible with the notion of the secular state. From the economic point of view, such rule might have serious negative implications. Many people get irritated with the fact that they have to do grocery and other shopping in advance since on Sundays and holidays everything is closed.
Such concept is totally strange for the Russian (and as I could guess, also American) mentality. Why should everything be closed on Monday?
However, oddly enough, after several years living in Europe, I tend to get a greater and greater appreciation of this tradition. It becomes important for me too to spend Sundays in calmness and quietness, without being distracted by shopping or any noisy activities. In the end, I realized that these rules are so intrinsically “human”. The respect to the tranquility and calmness of another, the right to rest – is also the respect of each individual. (And I know that one can argue that there could be no respect for the individual without the freedom of choice on what to do on Sundays or holidays. Although, this relates to the perception of the question of what is the freedom of the individual itself.)
In the more or less near future, these laws unequivocally will be abolished. But as long as such law exists, I am pleased to know that the “old Europe” still manages to preserve its original and fundamental traditions and values.
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