Monday's papers are the last to come out before the Christmas holidays and most of them have come out in "Christmas garb" - front pages are awash with Christmas symbols - Santa Klaus, Christmas trees, Christmas decorations and a snapshot of an unhappy looking carp - the nation's Christmas dinner. Hundreds of thousands of them will end up in a frying pan caked in breadcrumbs.

"The Christmas shopping fever has reached a peak" says Mlada Fronta Dnes, and salesmen are rubbing their hands in glee. Once again Czechs have broken last year's sales record. What' s behind the shopping frenzy? According to the economics daily Hospodarske Noviny Czechs are spending more due to advantageous leases, pre-Christmas sales and the fact that in the past year wages have risen by an average 1,000 crowns.

Czechs have money to spend -and they feel good spending it, says Lidove Noviny. While in the past many people made shopping trips to Poland to buy cheaper goods at market stalls, today many Czechs are heading for Austria and Germany to shop in luxury boutiques. Ironically, many Austrians and Germans are taking advantage of the lower prices of food in the Czech Republic and are coming here in order to save money.

Why do our rich neigbours come to spend their money in local grocery stores and buy pirated goods from Vietnamese salesmen while the comparatively much poorer Czechs go for the original products in German and Austrian boutiques? There is no economic explanation for this, the paper says - but it is definitely an interesting phenomenon .

Shopkeepers in the Austrian border town of Gmund say Czechs are respected customers. Shoe salesman Roland Eichinger has told the paper that every third customer is Czech - and on weekends there are allegedly more Czechs in the store than Austrians. They want good quality and are prepared to pay for it, Eichinger says.

So with consumerism the name of the game have Czechs forgotten all about the spiritual dimension of Christmas? In an interview for today's Lidove Noviny the spokesman of the Czech Bishops Conference Daniel Herman says he doesn't condemn the shopping frenzy. Crowded shopping malls don't insult me. It is not un-Christian to eat good food and give gifts, Herman told the paper. It would be sad if that were all that there was to it. But, I think that the spiritual dimension is still present, behind the bright Christmas facade.

If consumerism killed the Christian spirit then people in the United States would be the worst off, but they are not, Herman says. More than 90% of Americans are believers and while they spend money they also give to charity. Christmas is about love, giving and sharing and I think that attitude is one that Czechs have embraced as well.

A report in today's Pravo seems to confirm Mr. Herman's words. For years now young people in some parts of the country decorate Christmas trees outside their living rooms. They decorate trees in the forest - with apples, nuts, and birdfeed.

Tomas Zdechovsky, who launched this fine tradition says that every year the number of decorated forest trees grows because more people want to join in. As for the local forest animals - they have become accustomed to this Christmas larder and use it as a welcome "shopping mall" of their own.