The Good Book tells us “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work He had done in creation.” What biblical scholars cannot tell us, however, is precisely how God spent his Sunday. Did He go for a run? Read the paper while sipping on a venti macchiato at Starbucks?
But I am certain the Lord didn’t just sit around the house all day—unless, of course, the Lord happened to live in Europe, where commerce comes to a near standstill on Sundays. True, many cafés remain open, but retail stores? Closed. Supermarkets? Closed. Pharmacies? Closed.
I learned this during my college year in Vienna. One Sunday I needed to pick up a few groceries, only to discover the grocery stores were geschlossen—not a single location of the BILLA supermarket chain was open. I remember sarcastically asking an Austrian if hospitals and power plants were also closed. He chuckled and nodded, acknowledging the absurdity of the laws.
A few months after my arrival in Vienna, a Virgin Megastore opened on Mariahilferstrasse, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. To Richard Branson’s credit, the store was kept open on Sundays even though it meant paying a hefty fine. I suspect, however, that this penalty was offset by all the customers who flooded the store that day.
Two months ago I was in Berlin and in need of cold medicine. The problem, once again, was that it was a Sunday. A German told me the only option was going to the train station, where a few shops were allowed to operate. That’s right—in the year 2013, in a city of three-and-a-half million inhabitants, the capital of the economic powerhouse of Europe, in order to purchase a bottle of Tylenol, I have to go to a train station.
But lately, there’s been some pushback. Cosmetics giant Sephora runs a store on Paris’s Champs-Élysées that closes at midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. Predictably, a court battle ensued, pitting unions against the corporations. In September, an appeals court ruled that the chain must close its doors after 9 p.m., though many Parisians insist the late hours are the only opportunity they have to shop because of their own job schedules.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, “Advocates of more-limited hours argue that allowing employees to work late or on Sundays can hurt the country’s social fabric, preventing families from spending time together.” My German friend Claus defines that family time as “dad sitting on the couch with his bottle of beer, watching football beginning at 11:30 a.m.” He explains that quiet Sundays were meant for families to attend church services. “Of course,” he adds with a laugh, “nobody goes to church except the elderly.” (In addition to Sundays, businesses close for various holy days—and I’m not talking about Christmas. I remember Vienna shutting down for Fronleichnam—the Feast of Corpus Christi.)
If a family wants to stay home all Sunday long, in the words of Vice President Biden, God bless ’em. But shouldn’t this be a matter of choice? Growing up in New Jersey, I fondly remember the quality time spent with my family. First we attended Mass, then we drove over to the Ocean County Mall for a pizza, followed by a few hours of shopping—or, in my case, hunkering down at the arcade.
During the week, I see my own children for just an hour in the morning and a couple of hours at night. So the weekend is when I get my fill of the kids—sometimes to the point of overdose. (I often wonder how my wife deals with their insanity: “You need to turn around the black den chair,” she informs me, because the chair’s backside terrifies our 3-year-old daughter. In response, I thank her for explaining the rules of this asylum.) Nevertheless, we’ve got the option of spending our time outdoors, at the mall, or even food shopping. There’s no sense of confinement, unlike in Europe.
Speaking of which, if European nations want to boost their economies, they ought to seriously consider expanding Sunday hours for business. This would lead to greater revenue, extra pay for the workers, and the need to hire additional employees. (Last I checked, Spain’s youth unemployment rate was 56 percent.) Not only would it help the continent, but it would also aid U.S. exports.
In fact, President Obama missed a golden opportunity during his last visit to Berlin: If he’d wanted to make his mark the way Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner!”) and Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) did, the president should have ended his speech by exclaiming, “Frau Merkel, open these stores!”