By Georgia Chapman
Have you ever wondered why German children carry a rather strange cone-shaped object on their first day of school? This object looks a little like an upside down version of the Hennin cone worn by noble women in the Middle Ages. Are these rather large cones actually princess hats used the wrong way? No, of course not: it’s a school cone!
The German school cone is called a Schultüte, roughly translated as a school bag. They are given to German children (a custom also upheld in some parts of Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria) on their first day of school to ‘sweeten’ the day and their transition to the new regime of school. Traditionally they have been filled with sweets, which the children can eat after they have completed their first day.
The history of the Schultüte dates back to the early 19th century, where the cone shape was common packaging for confectionary (and still is: consider the small paper cone-shaped bags you still get in some old-fashioned sweet shops).
According to an exhibition held in the town of Jena in 2010, in the former East Germany, the first documented use for the first day of school was in 1817 when a father gave his daughter a bag with confectionary from the local baker’s. Back then this was called a Zuckertüte (sugar bag).
Previously, children were given confectionary, often a Breze (pretzel), on their first day of school, picked from the ‘Breze tree’ that grew in the school’s cellar or attic. The teacher would hand one out at the end of each day for the first week or two, until the tree was bare and the children had got used to the daily routine of school.
Once the schools no longer paid for these gifts, the families decided that sweeter treats would be nicer for the children anyway. So the tradition continued but the gifts became baked goods wrapped up in a small cone. The cone was hung on a tree and the children had to break it open, similar to the Piñata in Mexico. Once they succeeded, they could retrieve their gifts and it was considered the children were ‘ready’ for school, or schulreif.
For a long time, Saxony and Thuringia were the only areas to uphold this tradition. In many other areas children were given raisins, nuts or pretzels. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the tradition spread throughout Germany, though Berlin was still the only large city to adopt it before WWI.
When Germany was split into East and West after WWII, the cone shapes changed slightly in each country. In West Germany it remained round, as we still see it today, but in the East it took on a hexagonal shape and was slightly longer than its western cousin.
Nowadays they contain a lot more than just sweets and are much more exciting: small items like crayons, erasers, hair clips, key rings and other paraphernalia are common as gifts. Parents used to make or sew the cone, but like most modern items these are mostly bought now. There has been a revival in handmade cones in recent years, but now it is the children themselves who make them in kindergarten before their big day.
I spent my formative years in Germany and went to primary school in a small village north of Munich. My first day of school was in 1980, and my prevailing memory was how ridiculously heavy my Schultüte was! My satchel was empty, but I remember my parents telling me that if I wanted the contents of my Schultüte, I had to carry it myself. It took me several sugary, bliss-filled weeks to eat my way through everything!