Suzanne Fields

BERLIN -- The Germans are so strong on their family values they want the state to enforce them. They're debating now whether shops should be shuttered on Sunday by law. It's a burning issue in coffee shops, on the street and in the newspapers, hotter than whether Angela Merkel should send more troops to Afghanistan.

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Germany's highest court has ruled that keeping Sunday a day of rest benefits everyone, like it or not. So buying a head of lettuce, repairing a bike or purchasing a pair of shoes is not for Sunday. The ruling is especially disappointing to Berlin shopkeepers who find flexible Sunday hours particularly profitable.

Most clergymen, eager to reach the multitudes (the more parishioners in the pews, the louder the hymns), have greeted the ruling with enthusiasm if not awe. The initial complaint against extended Sunday hours was filed by leaders of both Protestant and Catholic churches, who argued that a clause in the German constitution supports the day of rest as important to "spiritual elevation." The labor unions pushed for Sunday as a family day that even atheists could enjoy. Under the ruling, shops will no longer enjoy Berlin's expansive policy of staying open 10 Sundays a year, including the four consecutive Sundays before Christmas, although it did not completely overturn the principle for some Sunday openings. Curbs on hours are expected in other cities, too.

Fortunately for the thousands of tourists who flock to Germany from all over the continent for the traditional Christmas markets, the new regulations aren't effective this Christmas season -- and they can visit retail shops on Sunday, too. More than 2,500 such markets have opened across Germany this year, and shoppers are expected to leave a lot of Euros behind. A typical shopper to a Christmas market spends about 30 Euros, almost $50, and if my own haul of scarves, toys and jewelry is typical, that's a modest estimate.

Dozens of little wooden huts, or stalls decorated with tiny, twinkling Christmas lights, typically stand in neat rows on town squares and plazas. They're tucked into alleys, courtyards and side streets, traditionally offering wooden toys, tree ornaments, nativity scenes and an enormous array of holiday food: gingerbread in Munich, figurines fashioned of dried plums in Frankfurt and stollen, a Christmas cake, in Dresden. It's even possible occasionally to find a hand crafted Hanukkah menorah.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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