This article is part of the series on Germany at 25: The 25 things that makes Germany, the country celebrating 25 years, special.
School time is the right time. When the children reach six or seven years of age, the time is ripe to leave the bird’s nest, known as the Kindergarten, and enter the first grade of elementary school (in German: Grundschule). There are many ways of making that transition for the children. In the United States, many schools have introduced graduation ceremonies for children leaving Kindergarten, using the structural format similar to a typical graduation ceremony in high school and college: children dressing up in gown and cap, teachers making speeches about the successes of kindergarten and the joys of entering the first grade, and lastly, children lining up to receive their diploma. This trend is becoming the norm, even though it is considered overexaggerated and more to the benefits of the parents than their own children. From my own past growing up in rural Minnesota, such a ceremony never existed and it was not necessary to have these extravaganzas, especially given the fact that Kindergarten is integrated into the school system, and the concept of a Kindergarten is different in the US than in Germany (as you can see in this article).
Keeping this in mind, how do the children celebrate the transition into the Grundschule in Germany? Easy peasy: children have their own festival which combines fairy tales with a concert and features a tree full of gifts. The Zuckertütenfest (translated into English as the School Cone festival), takes place at the end of the school year, and children entering the first grade at the Grundschule are treated to a cone full of sweets, picked off the cone tree (Zuckertütenbaum) when they are ripe enough for that. Legend has it that when the tree is full of cones that are fully grown and ripe, it means that the children are ready to go to school. It is unknown who was behind this festival, but records have indicated the states of Thuringia and Saxony were the origins of this festival, with Jena being the first known place to introduce it in 1817, followed by Dresden in 1820 and Leipzig in 1836. Although the concept of the school cone (or Schultüte) was only common in the eastern half of Germany during the 19th century, it eventually spread to the rest of Germany in the 1950s, and has since become a part of the new German tradition. Even Erich Kästner in his book “Als Ich ein kleiner Junge war,” (When I was a young boy), mentioned about how he received his cone- and dropped it, spilling all the contents on the floor: candies, dates, figs, and the like. His childhood days were spent in Dresden, where one can still see his place of birth as a historic site to this day. Today these cones are filled with less sweets but with more practical items, such as writing utensils, erasers, markers, calculators and even writing pads, just to name a few. Some small toys can also be included in the cone, whose standards range up to 85 cm in length- big enough to fit everything in there! 🙂
Going back to the question, how is the festival celebrated? I had a chance to check it out at a Kindergarten in Jena, where my daughter is graduating and moving onto elementary school. Unlike graduation ceremonies, this event is informal and private. That means only the parents, siblings and close relatives of the child “graduating” are allowed to participate and watch the event. While the event varies from Kindergarten to Kindergarten in terms of structure, most of the activities take place outside, which is logical because of the Zuckertütenbaum. At the one I was at, we had a potluck dinner (where everyone brought food and/or drink to share with others) combined with the tradition of the Thuringian bratwurst. But we started off with a concert lasting 30 minutes and featuring some soloists, like my daughter and her best friend. After the ceremony, each graduating child receives a small folder with a poem and best wishes from the teacher. In my daughter’s case, as she is bilingual, the teacher tried out her school time English, which ended with “Did I get this right, Mr. Smith?” 🙂 Then it was time to pick the school cones off the tree and give them to the kids. The trees come in different shapes and sizes, like the picture below (By the way, Charlie Brown would approve this concept, as it would not kill the tree):
Dinner, cake, teacher appreciation and entertainment usually follows the picking of the cone. As a general rule, children receive as many as over a half dozen cones prior to entering school, which usually begins in August, some through the festival and the rest through another celebration, the Schuleinführung (entry into elementary school), the largest of which comes from the parents. The size of the cones received through the Zuckertütenfest varies but are normally smaller than the big ones. In either case, the cones provide the children with enough tools and sweets to last through the first year in school- that is if the parents can get them to go sparingly on sweets and use the practical things instead. 😉
Zuckertütenfest and the cones are still common today as Kindergartens are using these festivals not as a way of graduating the children, like in the US, but as a way of saying farewell and thanks for all the years of learning together and being a family. After all, the teacher has the same group for five years, beginning at the age of one and ending when they leave to enter school at six. Unlike in school or even in college, these teachers are the most attached, as the kids rely on them for love and support while their parents are away. They are also called to duty to teach them the bare basics of friendship, fairness, working together, creativity and other key talents, which they can utilize in school. And when they are honored with a scrap book containing the pictures of the kids they taught, along with their drawings, together with other gifts that are typical of the events that happened over the years, then it is a sign that these teachers received what they deserved: honor, love, respect, and appreciation. And for the kids, they will leave the Kindergarten one by one, thanking them for what they did, yet the memories of their time there will remain for others to learn about. This is something that graduation ceremonies from Kindergartens cannot hold true. Sometimes, less is more. And when they can learn to be creative with the fewest items, they can go a long way as they enter school, then high school and lastly beyond.
This takes me to the end of the article on this unique festival, but not before making this quote: It takes kids to make a difference in our lives, yet it takes the teachers to make the difference in the lives of these kids.
If the teacher gets honored for his/her work, then it is because the kids leaving for the future, with a school cone in the hand, have learned a lot from him/her, already using what was taught for future purposes. When the Grundschule teacher welcomes the kids this fall, they will be amazed at what they have learned so far and what they can achieve even further in the future.