Why the United States Needs a "Ladenschlussgesetz"

This past November, most major retailers opened on Thanksgiving Day. Without fanfare, the one non-religious holiday dedicated to family, sitting around a table laden with food and good will, sharing with our friends, going for a walk or taking a nap ... the day for appreciating what we have instead of yearning for what we do not... was vandalized.

And we also lost Black Friday. Because, with the 'real deals' being pitched for Thanksgiving, why bother with the idiotic post-turkey ritual of driving in pre-dawn darkness to shiver in solidarity in a line twisting around a big-box? One more 'tradition' kicked to the curb. I'm left with memories of successful past hunts for an elusive Cabbage Patch doll, Tickle Me Elmo, $19 VCRs and Nintendo. (I was a good mom.)

It's enough to make one long for a Ladenschlussgesetz.

When I first went to Germany, I recall standing in a city platz on my very first Sunday and wondering, "When do the damn stores open?" I mean, really, it was like 2 p.m. The restaurants were hopping, people were strolling the cobblestone streets hand-in-hand, kids were playing with the ubiquitous doggies ... but not a single store was open.

Well, the answer was ... Monday. Unless Monday was a holiday (which that Monday happened to be) and then not until Tuesday.

In Germany, stores are closed on Sundays and holidays. All the holidays, and they do have a line-up. Restaurants are open (because Germans love to spend hours relaxing, eating and drinking with friends and family) and gas station mini-marts (which is why their gas stations feature shelves of wine, decent cheeses and fresh flowers... the essentials.) Train station and airport shops also. But that's it. The malls are empty, big-boxes deserted, even grocery stores locked up.

In 1958, the initial version of the Ladenschlussgesetz (Shop Closing Law) was passed, and for decades it dictated draconian store hours: weekdays, (7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.); Saturdays (close at 2 p.m.); and Sundays (verboten.) On one Saturday a month, and during pre-Christmas season, stores could stay open two hours later on Saturdays. In 1989, there was a revision to allow "der longe Donnerstag" (long Thursday) on which shops could remain open until 8:30 p.m. and permitted expanded hours for the month prior to Christmas. In 1996 and then in 2003 there were some minor changes. But substantive change did not come until June of 2006, when the sixteen Bundeslander (states) were allowed to regulate their store hours. Most states expanded, some even allowing 3-10 shopping Sundays (from 1-8 p.m.) a year.

Ladenschlussgesetz is not just about religion, although the lobby to restrict store hours appears to be an interesting combo of churches and labor unions. The unions' position centered on protecting retail workers and family time, insuring that, with varied working schedules, families could be together at least one day a week.

The limits on shopping were not without dissent. And yet, in 2009, when the German high court ruled that Sunday should remain sacrosanct (with some exceptions), editorials from the far right to the far left generally agreed.

Try and imagine that in the U.S.A.

Newspapers said that it was the duty and responsibility of the government to protect citizens from policies that undermine family stability. Yes, the court ruling went against the "economic liberal zeitgeist and is a ruling against the round-the-clock commercialization of life." However, it was held that Sunday is not just a day off but functions as a "day to synchronize society." People need to be social, need to have time together, without demands. Families need time to breathe.

Not simply a day off, but a collective day off. And there is a difference.

"Sunday as a day off is a great gift. The treadmill is closed for 24 hours," noted Die Tageszeitung. "The court has given relaxation, rest and 'spiritual elevation' precedence over the thirst for profit... " Not just for church, Sunday is also "to play cards, got for a walk or simply to laze around. After all, even the strictest atheist needs the switching off that Sundays allow."

The U.S. will never prohibit stores from opening on Sunday. But after this past Thanksgiving, it does feel that the scales have tipped away from holding anything sacred --- or even special. Commercial/retail interests have demonstrated a collective inability to self-regulate, or even use common-sense. The justification is that of a 4-year old: "He did it first."

All of which is why the United States needs some semblance of a Ladenschlussesgetz.

Susan Kraus is a travel writer and novelist. Her novel, "All God's Children," centers on a custody battle over a child in the funeral-picketing, gay-bashing Westboro Baptist Church. For more info on her writing, go to www.susankraus.com.