“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.
This week’s post is written by Christine Stumböck from Ichenhausen, a small town in the south of Germany. She misses good German bread, readily-available recycling, and the ability to buy groceries by bike. Christine currently resides in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
When I was younger and still living in Germany, I always had the impression that Christmas was a much bigger deal in the US. I guess it was mostly because of the blinking, colorful, and giant Christmas decorations that some families had in and around their house, often starting to pop up as early as November. Or maybe it was because of the fact that Santa Claus as we know him today is an invention of Coca-Cola. But anyway, my family always preferred subtle, natural-looking decorations like straw ornaments, and my mother would never put metal on our tree or plastic Santas in our lawn. It’s also a common German tradition to put up the Christmas tree and fully decorate the house on December 24. After all the work is finished, we sit together in the evening to open presents before going to church at midnight. So for me, Christmas always started late. And Christmas as a celebration always was over quickly because we received our presents shortly after we’d decorated the tree!
When I came to the United States two years ago, I realized that an American Christmas is much shorter than I realized. For a big part of the working population, Christmas is often not more than a single day off to spend with your friends and family. For those of us in the service industry — we who must keep the grocery stores and retail shops open at late as possible to accommodate last-minute shoppers — Christmas is the busiest time of the year.
Of course, there are also stores and restaurants open around Christmas in Germany, and many Germans consider the Christmas season to be a busy time. However, German federal law protects Christmas. First, there’s a law that requires stores to maintain “normal” working hours year-round for all those in retail; this law is called the Ladenschlussgesetz, or shop-closing law. This means that all stores are closed on Sundays and are never as late as 10 or 11 PM during the week; this is true even in big cities like Munich where I lived for several years. This law also has a specific regulation for Christmas Eve which requires that stores close in the afternoon so that everybody can go home and enjoy the holiday with their family.
Secondly, even though Christmas itself is shorter in Germany, Christmas as a season is much longer. The second day of Christmas, December 26, is a national holiday. And as most workers have more vacation days than we do in the U.S. (I had 28 days per year), many people are able to take off until New Year’s Day or even January 6, another national German holiday.
It took me a couple of years living outside of Germany to value federal regulations and realize what I really miss about Christmas. It’s not the colorful decorations, the shopping trips months ahead, or the plentiful gifts — it’s time. Time to sit together with family and friends. Time to calm down and fully relax. Time to think about the year that’s ending and to recapture all the memories, both good and bad.
So, Santa, maybe you could think about that until the next Christmas season rolls around…as I’m sure it will, way too soon.