Why Germans give their kids paper cones on the first day of school
Meet the Germans
A cone full of presents
The most important part of every German child's first day of school is the "Schultüte," or school cone. Apparently the thought of attending school every day for the next 12-13 years has to be "sweetened" with candy and presents - a tradition that dates back to the early 19th century. Parents fill the cones, either homemade or purchased, with treats, school supplies and small gifts.
The start of a new phase
Most children in Germany are six years old when they start school in August or September, depending on which state they live in. The majority of them have already spent a few years in daycare or pre-school, which is not part of the public school and is less pedagogical in nature. For kids in Germany - and often their parents too -, first grade is a big adjustment.
Just the right backpack
Ahead of the first day of school, parents buy their new first-grader a backpack, known as a "Schulranzen." They're often made with a square frame to make sure papers don't get bent and snacks don't get squished. Later, their jeans brand will be important, but for first-graders, it's crucial to have the trendiest design on their backpack. Star Wars and Superman never go out of style.
The school essentials
After they get their square backpack, it will need to be filled with pens, pencils, rulers and folders ahead of the first day. In Germany, particularly younger children often don't have lunch at school. Instead, they have a mid-morning snack time and go home or to daycare for a late lunch. To transport their "Pausenbrot," or "break bread," they'll need an appropriate box.
A day to remember
Many kids around the world pose for a first day of school photo. In Germany, they hold up their unopened "Schultüte" - which is often larger than they are - along with a sign reading something like "My first day of school." For many children, it's not the highlight of their big day.
Send-off with a blessing
The first day of school in Germany doesn't start with school - but with a special ceremony. Parents, relatives and godparents are invited to join in. An ecumenical church service is usually included in the tradition, giving the young pupils a special blessing as they mark a right of passage and embark on their educational journey. Some schools offer an interreligious ceremony for Muslim pupils.
Guidance from those with experience
During the ceremony, older children or teachers often give a small performance and explain to the newcomers how school works. In some schools, first-graders are assigned a buddy from third or fourth grade to show them the ropes.
Make yourself at home
A tour of the school is included in the introductory festivities and first-graders are shown their new classrooms, which are labeled "1A," "1B," "1C," etc. depending on the size of the school. This chalkboard reads, "Welcome, class 1A."
The family get-together
After the ceremony at school, families organize their own celebrations. Grandparents, relatives, godparents and friends are invited for a meal or cake to see the youngster of honor off into the brave new world of education. The first-graders themselves probably get annoyed at all the head patting and cheek squeezing - but they usually get a few presents to make up for it.
The second day of school
After the ceremony is over, the cake has been eaten and the cone of goodies unpacked, the first day of school draws to a close. The next day, the first-graders have to find their new classrooms for their first lesson. Elementary school in Germany includes grades one to four. After that, pupils move on to one of three different levels of secondary schools, depending on their academic performance.
Starting elementary school is a big deal in Germany. It's a rite of passage - almost like graduation or a wedding. Parents invest lots to shower their first-grader with gifts. But what's with the obligatory paper cone?
The first day of first-grade is a turning point in the life of every German child - and family. Elementary schools here begin with grade one, not kindergarten or pre-K, so there's a clean break between daycare and the 12 or 13 years of education that follow. And that's enough reason to celebrate big time.
In the gallery above, find out which rituals are associated with starting elementary school. By far the most important is the so-called "Schultüte," literally school bag or cone." Folklore expert Christiane Cantauw told DW why the cone tradition began, what goes into them and how new refugee children are getting to participate in the tradition.
DW: Is the thought of starting school so foreboding for Germans that they have to console themselves with gifts like the Schultüte - a paper cone full of sweets and presents?
Christiane Cantauw: That's a good question, but that's not what the tradition is about. Rather it's about making clear that a child's status is changing. This transition is associated with many changes for the child and for the family and that's what people want to emphasize with the ritual.
The early references come from what is now central Germany in the regions of Thuringia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and perhaps also Rhineland-Palatinate. Those are the main areas where the tradition has spread - they form a kind of belt across the middle of Germany. Those are also the regions in which very elaborate traditions have developed around the school cone.
The cone itself is not a tradition, it's an element used in a tradition and it's also simply packaging. It's sometimes also presented to young adults starting vocational school as well. That shows that it's seen as a symbol for a new beginning.
What was put in the early school cones?
Back then, usually the same things that are put in the cones today. Then it was called "Zuckerzeug" - literally "sugar stuff," or basically candy. Today, you'll find sweets, things to play with and school supplies.
Was the tradition carried on continuously over the past couple of centuries despite the World Wars and other major historical interruptions?
In the main regions where it's been practiced, people tried to continue with it because they placed a lot of value on the tradition. Of course during the World Wars it was problematic finding enough things to put in the cones - particularly for the poorer parts of the population. But people were inventive.
The school cone is really just a container, which means you can't look inside of it. And it's not opened at school but afterwards at home. That means that if I'm financially not in a position to fill up the cone with presents, I can fill it out with extras. So people threw in potatoes or paper. In one instance, I read that a wooden shoe was put in the bottom of the cone. But we can see that this symbol for school beginners was so important that no one wanted to do without it.
Economically speaking, Germany is doing relatively well right now. How has the school cone tradition changed over the past few years?
As with many things, it's been exaggerated. People spend an incredible amount of money on it. For the cone alone, they spend between 3 and 40 euros ($3.40-45.30). I conducted a small and non-representative survey in Münster, which isn't one of the main regions for this tradition. Three-quarters of those polled said they made the cone themselves, while one-quarter said they bought it.
Then you have to pay for the contents as well. Those polled said they spent between 5 - although that was the exception - and 100 euros. That's a lot of money, but it's only the tip of the iceberg.
In the area where the cones are most common, people don't just give new first-graders one, but several cones. Then they also order a cake from the local bakery with the child's name on it. In Saxony-Anhalt, for example, that's very common. Since the 19th century, people have spent days baking and planning and organizing to celebrate with relatives and neighbors. And they also buy presents for their neighbors' children.
A giant of German children's lit, Otfried Preussler wrote for kids aged six and up. "The Little Witch" tells of a girl learning the hard way what it means to be a "good" witch. In "The Robber Hotzenplotz," a man steals a grandma's coffee grinder - and two boys set off to capture him. This tale also features the wizard Petrosilius Zwackelmann. Say his name aloud - that's the kind of story this is.
'The NeverEnding Story' and beyond
If the movie "The NeverEnding Story" thrilled you during your youth, you can - like the hero of that tale - immerse in Michael Ende's masterpiece that inspired the film. Following the movie's success, his other works were also translated. "Momo" deals with time - and criticizes efficiency and stress. "Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver" is a beloved classic of German children's literature.
Off to paradise with tiger and bear
In "The Trip to Panama," a bear and a tiger lead a dreamy and lazy life - until a wooden crate comes floating on a nearby river. "Panama" is written on it, and it smells like bananas. Intrigued, the bear and tiger set off to find this wonderful smelling country. Their long and winding quest leads them to the best place on Earth: home. Janosch's imagery and surreal logic charm young and old alike.
Germany's favorite dinosaur
A well-known little dinosaur in Germany, the urmel, hatches from an egg in "Urmel From The Ice." The story is one Max Kruse's most famous works, thanks to its TV adaptation by the Augsburger Puppenkiste (picture). It also inspired the animated film "Impy's Island." The author's other famous work, "Lion on the Loose," is a merry adventure following an escaped wild animal through the city.
Escaping the Nazis
Each of the main characters remains a safe distance away from evil in "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" (1971), by Judith Kerr. It is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old, Anna, whose family flees Germany just as the Nazis take power. There is no war in this novel; it hasn't happened yet. But the story remains as relevant today as it ever has been: By the end, Anna and her family are refugees.
Humorous adventures in realist Berlin
Heading to Berlin? Pick up a copy of "Emil and the Detectives" by Erich Kästner. It'll take you (and your children) back to the German capital as it was in the late 1920s. After that, try another of Kästner's stories: In "Lottie and Lisa," separated twin girls meet each other for the first time at a summer camp. Decades later, it was adapted to the 1998 Hollywood blockbuster "The Parent Trap."
Max and Moritz
Many kindergartens and primary schools in Germany are named "Max and Moritz" after the prank-pulling duo in Wilhelm Busch's classic book. Note, however, that the book's pranks - and its moral compass - are firmly set in 1865. One example (spoiler alert!): After the boys' final prank fails, the two are ground up into pieces and fed to ducks. That's it. The end. No sequel.
The consequences of misbehaviour
Another sure way to traumatize your kids is "Struwwelpeter." In two of these 10 "moral" stories, a child dies; in another, a kid's thumb is cut off. At least some of the stories are lighter. One involves "Fidgety Philipp," whose dinner table antics spoil every meal. Even 150 years later, his name is used to scold children who can't sit still: "Don't be such a Zappel-Philipp!"
The power of books
The "Inkheart" trilogy was published in the midst of the "Harry Potter" hurricane but still went on to become a success. Set in contemporary times, Cornelia Funke's main character in the story, a 12-year-old named Meggie, has the ability to take things out of books and make them come to life. It's something of a family trick. But it wouldn't be a good story unless that power came at a price.
A city of books awaits
Zamonia is a fictional continent where funny stories happen - and the name of a series by Walter Moers. "The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear" is a good introduction, but it's OK to start with the fourth book, "The City of Dreaming Books." Often, the author describes a character, waits a while for the mental picture to cement, and then - surprise! - unveils a wacky illustration of his creation.