To minimise the spectre of kilometre long traffic queues together with overcrowded everything else during the peak summer holiday season, German school holidays are spread out, so in the separate Laender, federal states, kids are "school free" during different times, ranging from end June to beginning August for Bremen and Saxony for example, to August until mid-September for Baden Wuerttemburg and Bavaria.
This means that during the first week of August some lucky six year olds will receive their Schultuete, or school cone, in some cases to calm those "first day nerves" but actually to celebrate their having left their Kindergarten days behind them and beginning elementary school. While others are continuing to enjoy their holiday, and have the milestone moment still ahead of them.
A German child's very first day of grade school, Einschulung in German, is a landmark in their lives, and honored throughout Germany as a special occasion, with family gatherings, ceremonial speeches, music, singing and school traditions. Including a formal introduction to their teacher and future classroom before the new pupils are returned to their accompanying parents for all those photographs to be taken for posterity.
The German School Cone, Schultuete, or Zuckertuete (sugar bag) as it is still known in some parts of the country because it used to be filled mostly with sweet things of one type or another, is an enchanting custom that originated in the early 19th century in the eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia, and was gradually adopted by the rest of the country.
Initially the large decorated and labelled cardboard cone, now often taller than the average first grader, was taken to the school, hung from a Schultueten-Baum (School Cone Tree) and later handed to the kids, but this tradition did not catch on in the rest of Germany where it became the custom for Godparents to present it to the new pupil.
Now however it is more likely an exciting project made to their own design by children during their last weeks of Kindergarten, by parents who have fun with paste and paper making one themselves, or is chosen from the thousands for sale before school begins.
The beginnings of the tradition are in the middle ages with Schulbrezel (School Pretzel), when a Brezel Baum, a Pretzel tree, was said to be growing in either the cellar or the roof of the school building, and for those first days at school the teacher would "harvest" some Brezeln every day after lessons had ended and share them amongst the pupils until, at the latest after two weeks, the tree was empty.
The thrill of the first days at school can wear off rather quickly, even in those days, so it was a type of Trostpflaster, or consolation, and it is thought that it was the practice within the Jewish community, of giving letter shaped cakes, or challah, to Tora students, which first inspired the custom.
Originally the individual towns paid for the Brezeln, but after parents were asked to contribute they chose instead to use what would have been their donation in their own way, so that custom died out and the Zuckertuete tradition began.
However Schulbrezeln, large pretzel shaped or plaited circular raisin yeast buns, with an egg yolk glaze and sliced almonds with crushed sugar lump topping, are still a traditional gift at the start of the school year for children of any age. Although as a custom it is not so universally followed as that of Germany's school cone.
The contents of a Schultuete must remain a surprise for the recipient, however, although it might have been accurately called a Zuckertuete in the past, in these days of Healthy Living the filling now ranges from school supplies, soap bubbles, torches, books, and toys to DVD's, clocks and any other small gifts that can fit inside. Nevertheless as you would expect there will be at least some sweets, especially those Gummi Bears, chocolates, or cookies in there, after all the whole idea is to help sweeten those first few days of school life.
So it is no surprise that for generations six-year-olds starting out on their exciting, if challenging, new Lebensphase, have enjoyed a first day of school that was a positive and fun filled experience few will ever forget.
A 'How To', with all the instructions for making your own Schultuete,
Illustrations: The 2010 winners of the best 'self made' Schultueten in Cronenberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, courtesy cronenberger-woche.de and August 2007 First Graders with their Schulbrezeln in Katzenelnbogen, Rhineland-Palatinate.
These Haribo Gummi Candy Gold-Bears, will find their way into virtually every German fifth grader's Schultuete. But get the 5-Pound Bag and wrap them in portions, which is how it is done in Germany, rather than buying the individual small bags which work out more expensive.
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