It began in 1810 on fields in front of Munich’s city gates, as a horse race honoring Ludwig the Crown Prince of Bavaria’s marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, and when the festival was repeated one year later it signaled the beginning of an annual tradition, the Oktoberfest in Munich. Named “Theresienwiese”, Theresa’s Fields, a tribute to the new Crown Princess, its 31 hectares are where Munich’s Oktoberfest continues to take place over 200 years later, although it is no longer the outskirts of the city, and the Muencheners have long since shortened it to the Wiesn.
The “Einzug der Wiesnwirte” dates from 1887. A costumed parade of around a thousand Oktoberfest workers, bands, brewers, publicans and tent owners, in decorated horse driven coaches, drays and floats, it passes through Munich to the Wiesn on the first Saturday of the festival. While Sunday’s longer “Trachten und Schuetenumzug” parade began as part of the silver wedding anniversary celebrations for, the by then, King Ludwig I and his Queen in 1835. Around 9,000 traditionally costumed participants from across Germany and neighboring European countries take part in the seven kilometer long “Procession of The Costume and Riflemen”.
Broadcast live on German television, and looking much as it must have done long before the medium was invented, amongst others groups of “soldiers” and “riflemen” in historical uniforms, members of traditional costume societies Trachtenverein, wearing the time-honored outfits from their villages, towns and regions, Blasmusiken, “Oompah Bands” as they are sometimes known outside of Germany, decorated coaches, horses, floats, and drays, together with assorted livestock, travel along the garlanded autumn streets.
Both processions are led by Munich’s city mascot for the last 800 years, “Munchener Kindl”, said to be the inspiration behind the Munchkins in the children’s tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and who was originally portrayed as one of the monks believed to have been the first inhabitants of Munich. “Muenchen”, the city’s name in German, means “Of Monks”. However these days Oktoberfest Muenchener Kindl is a young woman, her costume based on a monk’s habit, and chosen from amongst the daughters of those associated with the festival.
At 12 noon on Saturday, the “Oberbuergermeister”, Lord Mayor, of Munich taps the first keg of beer and shouts O’Zapft is, Bavarian dialect for It’s tapped, and Oktoberfest is officially open.
With its fourteen circus sized tents, all with their own distinct personalities, it is known as the biggest “Volksfest”, peoples festival, in the world, and receives over six million visitors each year, with more than 15 percent tourists from outside Germany. They eat their way through over a hundred oxen, half a million chickens and 60,000 pork knuckles (Sweine Haxen), which are just a few of the many “delicacies” on offer, and drink 1,000,000 liters of water and lemonade. As well as over 7,000,000 liters of Oktoberfest beer, which must be brewed within Munich’s city limits and by far the most popular is the specially brewed “Wiesn Maerzen”, a highly alcoholic beer.
So it is lucky that amongst the 12,000 people employed to keep everything running smoothly, there are skilled beer servers, “die Bedienungen”, who fill the liter glasses in just one and a half seconds, amongst them the “dirndl” clad waitresses who are also able to carry ten “mass” at one time, as they rush through the crowded tents shouting Vorsicht, “Look Out!”, or blowing on whistles to prevent too many collisions.
Far more is on offer than an opportunity to sit in a tent and drink strong beer, it is an experience celebrating and highlighting Bavaria, Bavarian life and traditions. A family event with special family days shows there is something for everyone, from decorated Oktoberfest Hearts and cotton candy to the Oktoberfest funfair, with its old fashioned flea circus, traditional as well as new rides for the very young and for the older and braver, Ferris wheels, roller coasters, ghost trains and the ‘Krinoline’, a historic but popular carousel. Although some white knuckle rides, for example the ‘Top Spin’ which suspends the riders upside down, should perhaps not be attempted after rather too many excursions into the expansive territory of Oktoberfest food and drink.
Oktoberfest music is a genre of its own. Officially played more quietly during the day until 6 pm, although 85 decibels and around the level of loud road traffic might be quieter but certainly not quiet, it is not the perhaps expected traditional marching band music but pulsating, repetitive rhythms and sing-along refrains guaranteeing a party mood. Released on CD’s, the year’s favorites are as treasured as the memories of the Oktoberfest itself.
Despite the modern rides, attractions and up to date facilities, it is not only the festival’s own museum which has an atmosphere of history and tradition. Oktoberfest visitors often wear traditional ‘Tracht’, with women in a dirndl, a style of dress with tight bodice, short sleeves and full skirt with sometimes an apron added, and for the men lederhosen, short leather trousers. And even tourists find “Tracht” from somewhere to wear for the day, or week.
The Oktoberfest in Munich is a piece of living history in a 21st century world, and an experience to enjoy, remember and perhaps even to repeat.