Part of moving to a new country means adapting to the local culture. In Germany that means learning how to sort trash, return bottles to a number of locations, bag groceries at light speed, drive with both care and “confidence,” and adjust to nothing being open on Sunday. And this last one, the Sunday “Ruhetag” (restday), a law that dates back to 1900, may be one of the most difficult adjustments for our family to embrace.
In case you missed it, everything is closed on Sundays. No grocery shopping, no shopping malls, no car wash, no hair appointments. Nothing but restaurants and tourist things, like museums, are open.
Let me go back a bit. Limited shopping hours aren’t unfamiliar to us. We used to live in Qatar where everything closed on Fridays, their holy day. But stores opened after 4 p.m. when prayers were over. In fact, the whole month of Ramadan things would close in the morning. In Sweden, most small shops close on Sundays, but the larger big box grocery stores open later for shopping. So, this isn’t my first time begin exposed to reduced shopping hours.
Initial Thoughts on German “Ruhetag“
When we first arrived, I thought I would adjust to this relaxed schedule. However, working 30 hours a week, meant Saturday was my only day to run errands. During the week, I was busy shuffling kids here and there and taking care of other chores, which could only be done during very limited weekday hours. We spent Saturdays like a sprint to the finish line to get cars washed, dry cleaning dropped off, shopping done (at all the stores), and then by Sunday I was left feeling exhausted.
Sundays in Germany are meant to be a time to go to church and “spend with your family.” The stores are closed so workers have a guaranteed day to spend resting. That is workers who don’t work in the restaurants or in the tourist industry. (Side note, those places may be closed on Mondays.)
The Meaning Behind Sunday Ruhetag
Let’s address the first reason for Sunday ruhetag: to attend to church. While the German countryside is dotted with churches and on Sunday mornings I do very much enjoy the sound of church bells, hardly anyone is religious in Germany. Only half the population claims to be Christian, but more than half a million stopped going to church in 2016. Another one-third claims to be not affiliated with a religion and now almost 6 percent of Germany residents are Muslim.
Next, is the spending time with family. I love my family. I see them every day. But for my teenagers, weekends includes their allotted times to watch TV or play computer games. When the weather is nice, I try my best to pull them from the screens and drag them out for assorted day trips here and there, but generally, everyone just wants to “relax.” It sure would be nice to get some errands done on those days.
Sunday Runs into Saturday
Closed on Sunday also means closing early and running out of stock on Saturday. Unless I get to the store before 11 a.m., the shop will likely be out of most things. The stores which close at 3 p.m. have likely put away all their meat and fish at 2 p.m. meaning I have to sprint faster with less time on the clock. If I wake up early on Saturday and beat the crowd to the grocery store by 9 a.m., I’m good. Better yet, if I carve out time to go Friday morning when they stock for the weekend, I’m golden. But what family with two working parents can do that?
Once I stopped working, I realized this system was built for the 1950s housewife who has all the time in the world to make frequent trips to the grocery store. Likely then it was trips to the market on foot, but now it’s in a car. I’m not sure how efficient, economical, or globally sound that is, but I digress.
What Germans Think about Sunday Store Closures
My husband conducts extensive, highly unscientific research and asks every German he meets what they think about the stores closed on Sundays. For the most part, they find it slightly inconvenient, but they feel this special day keeps society bonded together. Sunday closings mean families spend more time together. [Cue hilarious laughing!] On a beautiful day, I do see more people out walking in large groups. I do believe people would still do this if things were open on Sunday.
But there is no choice on when to spend your time with family. The weather varies greatly in Germany. When Saturday is beautiful and Sunday forecasts rain, I must compromise (or plan ahead), to take advantage of the weather with any family outings on Saturday. If I can pry the mobile devices from their hands!
However, in the crappy winter weather, families are together inside watching TV. You know how I know this? Rainy Sundays means our Internet crashes the entire day as we share our DSL with all of our neighbors.
Working Parents and Sunday Closings
After many months in Germany, I’m convinced Sunday Ruhetag is not sustainable, especially with two working parents. As families move out to the suburbs, driving kids to and from activities will become the norm. That means even if mom works part time, she spends her afternoons at soccer practice, music lessons, and swim training. The last thing anyone wants to do after a day of work and ubering kids around is stop at the store every single day. If parents are only left with Saturday to run errands, eventually you have overly exhausted parents who spend Sundays not with their kids, but lying on the couch recovering from their marathon week of work, activities, and sprint shopping trips.
I’m still struggling to embrace Ruhetag. We have travelled to Spain, France, and England where surprisingly everything is open on Sunday. I didn’t realize how completely inconvenient this is until I leave Germany and come back. We even have to plan when we return from vacations…..not on a Sunday.
Advice for Expats
In all likelihood, this law will not change during my tenure here so best to accept it and move on.
First, don’t shop grocery stores first thing on Monday since they haven’t replenished things like bread, eggs, chicken, and ground beef. Don’t shop late on Saturday as it will look like a hurricane about to hit in Texas.
Stock up before holidays. Recently, we had a Thursday holiday (stores closed) which means Friday and Saturday are the only days to shop. Translation: Freakin’ Black Friday kind of shopping. Shop ahead of time as much as possible to avoid these “bridge” days where shopping madness ensues. Keep packaged milk in the basement for returning from vacation.
And forget about Christmas. If Christmas falls on Friday, forget about it. That means the stores close Thursday after maybe 11 a.m., Friday, Saturday (day after Christmas holiday), and, yes, you guessed it, Sunday. Monday will be total madness. My advice for that year: go to France.