by Paula Stachuletz, staff writer
The “school cone” is a German tradition based on a story that children were told back in the 19th century. According to the story, teachers owned a school cone tree; and when the cones had grown big enough, it was time for the six or seven year olds to start school. Every child was handed his or her own cone as a sign that they now were “big kids,” not kindergarten children anymore.
School cones come in various shapes and sizes, but the most common ones are a little smaller than an average first-grade student. In the federal states that belonged to West Germany before the wall fell, the cones are usually round; while in East Germany, they are hexagonal. The big, open end is traditionally closed off with tulle which is tied together with colorful strings and ribbons. Parents usually spend between 50 and 100 Euros (60 – 120$) for a complete school cone.
The cones themselves are on sale a few weeks before the school year starts (depending on the federal state that can be around late July or August). They are made from cardboard or hard plastic and can be plain, uni-colored, or have pictures of animals, movie characters, fantasy creatures and cartoon figures on them. A lot of parents, like mine, actually buy plain cones and decorate them to make them more personalized for their children. In my case, my mom stayed up long nights turning my cardboard cone into a very cool one with a princess and red and pink flowers (I still have this cone and I love it). I wasn’t allowed to see it until the day my school induction ceremony took place, and even then I couldn’t open it until that event was over – I’m telling you, for a six-year-old, that seemed to take forever!
Traditionally, all the children starting school get dressed up very fancy on the day of the induction. For girls that’s usually cute dresses with bows in their hair. The boys wear a shirt, dress pants, and a flie or little tie. Then the ceremony starts with a welcome program prepared by the fourth-graders because in German elementary schools, they’re the oldest and will leave for highschool when they enter fifth grade, so it’s their goodbye and welcome for the new students at the same time. The program varies every year and at every school; it contains songs, dances, little theater performances, and speeches from teachers and the principal.
Then the newcomers line up on stage and get their cones. Because of the myth of the “school cone tree,” all the cones are hanging from a metal construction resembling a tree, and they’re “harvested” by the teachers who hand them to the kids. After that, the children are split up in the classes in which they will remain until they leave elementary school.
And of course, the cones aren’t empty. After the ceremony, children return home with their families, open the tulle, and turn the thing around so everything falls out. The cones are filled with candy, school supplies like pens or erasers, little card games or puzzles, legos, and stuffed animals. Some parents put in practical supplies like lunch boxes, water bottles, or watches, while others give their kids little books and quiz games to motivate them to learn. I remember that my cone had a big plush unicorn on top, and my little brother’s had a rabbit. We both got lots of chocolate and gummy bears, memory cards, plastic animals, CDs, and pencils.
We raided through the contents of our cones, eating way too much candy and covering the whole room in wrapping papers and string. It was so much fun. For me, the cone is one of the most exciting things about starting school in Germany.
(Stachuletz is an exchange student from Germany. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Note on photos above: To the left is Paula’s brother’s cone, in the middle is Paula’s cone, and to the right is her school’s cone tree.