Monday, September 5, 2011

It’s back-to-school time in Germany!

My soon-to-start-school 6-year-old stopped in the middle of dinner and said dreamily, “I’m so excited about my Schultüte!”
If you haven’t experienced a „first day of school“ in Germany, you soon may be wondering what the large, colorful cone-shaped objects are that all the new first-graders are carrying with them as they begin their school adventure.  Well, they’re called Schultüten (school bags) or Zuckertüte (sugar bags) and basically they are…bribes.  For my first daughter (now 14), her Schultüte was the one and only reason she “agreed” to start school.  It is a literal cornucopia of delights – filled with small gifts and candies that the children get to carry with them throughout the first-day-of-school ceremonies and instruction.  After the first looong day ends at 10:30am (we’re in Germany, folks), the children get to open it – Christmas in September so to say.  And the excited tots are distracted for a while from the fact that homework will be a major part of their lives for the next decade or so. 


It seems that the Schultüte is such an exciting and valuable thing that many different cultures claim to have been the first to „invent“ it.  And, in fact, an object that can take kids’ minds off some of the less exciting facets of school-life is certainly more useful than the theory of relativity, even if the effects aren’t as long-lasting.  A little research shows that the Germans, Jews, and Arabs all claim responsibility for the Schultüte.  Most sources state that it first appeared in East Germany at the beginning of the 18th century.  The children were told that in the teacher’s house a “Schultüte tree” grew, and when the cones were big enough, it was time for school to begin.  However, it is also claimed that this tradition grew out of the Jewish custom of presenting the children with cookie-letters to symbolize that “God’s word in my mouth is sweeter than honey” (Psalm 119).  Not to be left out, another source claims that the tradition started 1400 years ago in the Arab regions where the little school-starters were given a bag of linen, hemp, or palm fibers filled with dates and other sweets. (Hmm…did they even have first-grade back then?  PTA’s?).  At any rate, the tradition spread to other parts of Germany by the 1900s and is now a cherished part of the first day of school.

Today’s Traditions

Traditionally, the godparents of the first-graders were responsible for presenting the child with the Schultüte and its contents.  Some still do this, although today it might be handmade by or with the parents, grandparents or children themselves at kindergarten and there is no strict “rule” about who provides the gifts inside, which include sweets, small gifts, or school supplies (but please don’t expect excited whoops if you include fruit and a bunch of erasers and glue!).  I made the Schultüte with my first daughter during a “group craft” event at the kindergarten, but my son’s aunt made it with him, and my current little Schulkind made it with her godmother in July.  The main idea is to spend time with someone beloved and to create a “cone of wonder” for the child to look forward to over the next 8 weeks or so until the start of school, when they get to be king or queen for the day (but don’t forget - smaller versions of the Schultüte can be bought for younger non-school-age siblings - unless you especially like the sound of screams and tears when the excitement passes them over).

The Schultüte craft in progress.

When my daughter is asked about school, she always brings up her Schultüte.  It definitely brings that extra sparkle to this special beginning.  Of course, it can backfire, as it did with my first child.  She was all smiles and joy, dressed up and shiny, sweet and obedient.  We attended the church service and but when it ended and the children were supposed to make their way to the school, my daughter said, “OK, I’m ready to open my Schultüte now.”  I said, “But honey, now you have to go to school, then you can open it.” Shocked, the smile left her face and she exclaimed, “I have to go WHERE?!!!” Evidently the excitement over the Schultüte completely obliterated the other facts. 
I have experienced German first-day-of-school traditions with three children now, and have one to go.  September brings up many bittersweet memories for us all, and wonderful German traditions such as the Schultüte and an after-school lunch, coffee and cake with friends and family have always provided an additional thrill to the day. 

A huge thanks to Rebbeca for writing this for us! 

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