Back-to-school season in the U.S. involves a number of fun rituals, like shopping for classroom supplies, picking out a special first-day outfit and taking photos with a personalized sign. On the first day of school in Germany, however, you’ll see an even more striking sight.
German children mark the transition to school by carrying large paper cones on their first day of classes. The cones — which seem larger than the kids themselves — are brightly colored and sometimes have ornate decorations.
But what’s the deal with these cones? What’s inside them? And where did they come from? We turned to some German cultural experts to find out.
What is the school cone?
“A Schultüte ― also known as a ‘school cone’ or ‘cone bag’ in some parts of Germany ― is a cardboard container in the form of a pointed cone that schoolchildren carry with them when they start school,” Amrei Gold, head of public relations for North America at the German National Tourist Board, told HuffPost.
She noted that German children receive these cones from their parents on their first day of elementary school, which typically occurs around age 6. The Schultüte is very large and can be fully rounded and cone-shaped or appear more like a pyramid on a hexagonal base.
“The school cones are usually filled with sweets and small gifts such as crayons or other school supplies,” Gold explained. “The name ‘sugar cone,’ which is common in some areas for the school cone, comes from filling it with sweets.”
She joked that perhaps the idea of having to attend school every day for the next 12-13 years requires “sweetening” with treats and gifts. The Schultüte is also a big photo opportunity, as many kids pose with their cones and sometimes a sign reading “My First Day of School.”
“The cone has been a tradition for a long time and is an important part of the very first day of school for children in Germany,” said Kirsten Bencker, who works in the language department at the Goethe-Institut in Munich. “The point of the cone is to highlight the transition from one status to another. This transition is connected with many changes for the child and for the family and this is to be emphasized through a ritual.”
Where did this tradition come from?
“The custom of giving school starters a Schultüte on the first day of school has been practiced in Germany since the 19th century, but the roots go even back into the 18th century,” Gold explained. “Historically it has its roots in Saxony and Thuringia, but is well-known across Germany today.”
She pointed to early evidence from the autobiography of Saxon theologian Karl Gottlieb Bretschneider, who began school in 1781 or 1782 and recalled receiving a bag of candy from the schoolmaster.
“Twenty years later, when Johann Daniel Elster started school in Benshausen, Thuringia, in 1801, it is even said that he received a large bag of sugar from the cantor ‘according to old custom,’” Gold added. “Further evidence comes from Jena in connection with the city cantor Georg Michael Kemlein in 1817, Dresden in 1820, and Leipzig in 1836.”
Early versions of the tradition involved telling kids that there was a special “school cone tree” at their teacher’s house or on the school grounds. Once the school cones grew big enough, it would be time to pick them and start school.
“The custom became widespread not at least because of a children’s book called ‘Zuckertütenbuch für alle Kinder, die zum ersten Mal in die Schule gehen’ (‘Sugar cone book for all children going to school for the first time’) by Moritz Heger,” Bencker explained, noting that the 1852 book suggested that teachers pick the cones for their students from this special tree.
Edible treats were the dominant contents of school cones at that time.
“In his childhood memories, ‘When I Was a Little Boy,’ Erich Kästner describes his first day of school in Dresden in 1906 and his ‘sugar cone with the silk bow,’” Gold noted. “When he wanted to show the bag to a neighbor, he dropped it and the contents fell on the floor: He was ‘up to his ankles in sweets, chocolates, dates, Easter bunnies, figs, oranges, tartlets, waffles and golden May bugs.’”
Although the Schultüte started as a predominately central German tradition, the practice caught on elsewhere.
“Berlin was the first big city outside of the original areas in which school cones became common ― although they were still rare before the First World War,” Gold said. “Only gradually did the custom catch on in the south and west.”
Following the division of Germany after World War II, traditional round cones around 28 inches long were the standard practice in West Germany, while those in East Germany opted for hexagonal Schultüte around 33 inches long.
“Nowadays, the tradition is a widespread tradition in whole Germany and also Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland,” Bencker noted. “The central German regions where it began are also the areas where a very distinctive custom has developed around this school cone ― big family parties, ordering cakes with the name of the children at a bakery for the first day.”
How do you put together a school cone?
“While you can buy prefabricated cones at the store, many parents make their own school cones, with or without their children,” Bencker said. “Generally speaking, children can be very creative in decorating their sugar cones.”
Indeed, there are many online tutorials explaining how to make a Schultüte with thick paper products like poster board ― though cardboard and plastic can also be used. These days, there are also more sustainable school cones made of fabric, which can be turned into cushions.
“If the parents are not going to make the school cones, they are either bought ready-made or made by the children themselves in kindergarten,” Gold said, adding that in the past, godparents were often the ones giving kids their school cones. “The largest manufacturer of school cones in Germany is Nestler GmbH Feinkartonagen in Ehrenfriedersdorf. It produces over 2 million school cones a year.”
In addition to the traditional sweets, cones these days may also be filled with school supplies, books or something to play with.
Some schools even have guidelines for the maximum size of students’ cones, and there might be a designated enrollment day before the first day of classes when children receive their cones and take photos. And the tradition is no longer explicitly limited to the beginning of primary school.
“Today, small cones of candy are sometimes handed out at the transition from elementary school to secondary school or at the beginning of an apprenticeship or study,” Gold said. “However, they are still primarily associated with the beginning of school.”
Of course, if you want to make yourself a Schultüte for no reason whatsoever, who’s to stop you?