“What is Oktoberfest?” by S.M. O’Connor

Oktoberfest is a two-week-long annual Volkfest (folk festival) in Munich, Bavaria, Germany that combines a beer festival and funfair (traveling carnival) from the middle of September to the first Sunday in October.  Approximately 6,000,000 people participate in Oktoberfest every year.  Held since 1810, it commemorates a horse race that was an ancillary event to the celebration of a royal wedding.  Oktoberfest is held on the Theresienwiese (Therese’s Field), though locals shorten this to Wiese (as in the Field), in Ludwigvorstadt-Isarvorstadt, a borough of Munich that is just south of the center of the modern city.  The field is named after Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (1792-1854), who, in 1810, wed Crown Prince Ludwig (1786-1868) of the Kingdom of Bavaria in that field.[1]   Today, the field is in the shadow of St. Paul’s Church, so it would be reasonable for tourists to assume that is where the wedding took place, but the church was built later in the 19th Century.

Major Andreas Michael Dall’Armi, a cavalry officer of the Bavarian National Guard, suggested to King Maximilian I Josephof Bavaria that the horse race be held.  [The Bavarians can be very informal and often refer to kings with the regal name Maximilian as “King Max.”]  The wedding was held on October 12, 1810 and the horse race was held on October 17th.  There were no beer tents at the horse race, but the party was so big nobody forgot it and they kept reenacting it.  In 1811, the Bavarian Agricultural Association assumed responsibility for organizing what would become Oktoberfest.  Two years later, it was cancelled due to the Napoleonic Wars.  [Bavarians fought on both sides of the Napoleonic Wars, so they honor the dead from both sides.]  Until 1819, Oktoberfest was privately financed, but that year the municipal government assumed responsibility for it.  In 1824, the City of Munich honored Andreas Michael Dall’Armi with a gold medal as the inventor of Oktoberfest.  He is buried in Alter Südfriehof cemetery.  He is the eponym of a street in the Neuhausen-Nymphenburg neighborhood.

In 1850, the statue of Bavaria personified as protector of Oktoberfest was unveiled, but in the mid-19Th Century, wars and cholera overshadowed the affair.  In the final quarter of the 19th Century, Oktoberfest celebrations recovered their old color.  Beer tents became larger and larger and musicians began to play lively tunes in them.  Carousels with electric lights appeared.  Performers came to entertain the crowds.

Only beers produced by six breweries based in Munich that observe the Reinheitsgebot (purity order) adopted by the Duchy of Bavaria (as it was then constituted within the Holy Roman Empire) in 1516.  English-speakers call this body of regulations the German Beer Purity Law.  The six breweries are Augustiner,[2] Hacker-Pschorr,[3] Hofbräu,[4] Löwenbräu,[5] Paulaner,[6] and Spaten.[7]

In 1881, the first roasted chicken stall opened.  This continues to be a favorite dish at Oktoberfest.  Other favorite meats include duck, suckling pig, and lamb shanks.

The dirndl bow on a woman’s apron tells a story of whether she’s spoken for or single.  If she tied the bow on the right, she’s married, engage to be married, or in love.  If she tied it on the left, she’s single.  Traditionally, if she tied it in the middle, she was indicating she was a virgin, but today she may be indicating she does not wish to reveal her relationship status.  If it’s in back, she’s a waitress, a widow, or a minor.

In 1910, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Oktoberfest, 12,000 hectoliters of beer were poured at the Pschorr-Braürosl, the tent that could accommodate 12,000 people.  The tent was named in honor of Rosi Pschorr, the beautiful daughter of the Pschorr brewery owner.  The tent has appeared at Oktoberfest since 1901 and Rosi sang with a band.  For over seventy years, the Heide family has hosted Oktoberfest events in the tent.

In 1950, Thomas Wimmer, Mayor of Munich, tapped the keg at the Schottenhammel tent.  It subsequently become traditional for Oktoberfest to open with this mayoral ceremony.

One of the worst terrorist attacks in German history occurred at Oktoberfest in 1980 when Gundolf Köhler detonated a bomb at the main entrance.  The explosion killed thirteen people and injured 200 others.  The case was re-opened in 2014.

Oktoberfest starts with the Parade of the Landlords.  The next one is on Saturday, September 21, 2019.  This is followed by the Traditional Costume and Hunters’ Parade on Sunday, September 22, 2019.  This second parade has taken place since 1950.  It is led by Munich’s mascot, the Müncher Kindl.

This figure started out as a monk, but somehow, over the course of time, became increasingly childlike and feminized to the point that now the mascot is a girl. The first person to play the Müncher Kindl was Elisabeth (“Ellis”) Kaut (1920-2015) in 1938 despite the fact she was born in Stuttgart.  She grew up to become an authoress of children’s books.[8]   Since 1972, the Festring Association has selected the girl who plays the Müncher Kindl.  To be eligible to portray the Müncher Kindl, a girl is supposed to from a family who has resided in Munich for at least three generations.

Credit: Oktoberfest Caption: Barth’s Olympia Looping Rollercoaster is 1,250 meters long and has five loops.  It is the world’s largest transportable rollercoaster.

Credit: Oktoberfest Caption: Willenborg’s Ferris wheel has become something of a symbol of Oktoberfest since debut in 1979.

Since 2005, Oktoberfest has become more family-friendly with Bavarian brass bands playing until 6:00 p.m. and louder music allowed after that hour.  In 2010, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest, a historical pageant called the Oide Wiesn began to be held in the southern part of the Theresienwiese to remind people of the origins of Oktoberfest.  It included family-friendly cultural activities and a horse race. This Oide Wiesn became a particular favorite of Munich residents and continues to be held as part of Oktoberfest, except during years when the Bavarian Agricultural Fair, which is held every four years, would be held simultaneously.  The next two years when Oktoberfest and the Bavarian Agricultural Fair will be held concurrently are 2020 and 2024.

Oktoberfest is so popular that over time it has come to be celebrated by other Germans who are neither ethnic Bavarians nor have any political or cultural ties to the Kingdom of Bavaria (now the Free State of Bavaria).  It is celebrated across Germany, Canada, the U.S.A., southern Brazil, and Australia. There are also Oktoberfest celebrations in Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Russia, South Africa, India, Vietnam, South Korea, and China.  Outside Germany, the largest Oktoberfest celebrations are in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada; Blumenau, Santa Catarina, Brazil; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Denver, Colorado.


[1] Crown Prince Ludwig belonged to the House of Wittelsbach, which ruled Bavaria for the better part of a thousand years, by turns as dukes, prince electors, and kings, from 1180 to 1918 A.D.  They also provided the Holy Roman Empire with two emperors, and Hungary, Sweden and Norway, and Greece with one king each.  Crown Prince Ludwig went on to rule Bavaria as King Ludwig I from 1825 until the Revolutions of 1848, at which time he abdicated in favor of their eldest son, Prince Maximilian (1811-1864), who ruled as King Maximilian II from 1848 to his death in 1864.

[2] The oldest brewery inside the Munich city limits, Augustiner was founded, as the name suggest, by Augustinian canons, in 1328. After the brewery underwent privatization, it moved in 1817 to Neuhauser Strße, where the Augustiner Restaurant remains popular.  The brewery moved to Landsberger Strße at the close of the 19th Century.  This is the last brewery still using the old-fashioned wooden barrels called Hirschen for storage.

[3] The first documented reference to what became the Hacker-Pschorr brewery was in 1417.  Under the leadership of a couple, Joseph Pschorr and Maria Theresia Hacker, it became the leading brewery in Munich in the 18th Century.  Their sons continued to the family trade, but divided it into rival breweries.  The two brands reunited in 1972.  The Wiesen (Oktoberfest brew) is 5.8% alcohol.

[4] Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria founded Hofbräu in 1589 as a ducal brewery.  Originally, it was located in the center of the city, and the Hofbräuhaus am Platz and remains a major tourist attraction, but in the 19th Century it moved due to lack of space to Innere Wiener Straße.  In 1918, Bavaria became a republic in a bloodless revolution.  Since 1939, the State of Bavaria has owned Hofbräu.  The Hofbräukeller on Hofbräu remains a popular beer garden, but since the 1980s the brewery has been at Munich-Riem.  The Wiesen (Oktoberfest brew) is 6.3% alcohol.

[5] The Löwenbräu brewery may date back to the 14th Century, but it did not appear in the index of Munich breweries until 1746.  In the 19th Century, under the ownership of the Brey family, it went from being a mid-sized company to the largest brewery in Munich.  It moved to Nymphenburger Straße, where it is still located.  The Löwenbräukeller and its beer garden are famous for events like the annual Stout Beer Festival.  The logo is similar to the Bavarian lion used in traditional heraldry.  In 2003, Interbrew (now InBev) acquired the Spaten-Franziskaner-Löwenbräu Group.  The Löwenbräu-Wiesenturnk Wiesen (Oktoberfest brew) is 6.1% alcohol.

[6] Monks of the Paulaner Order started to brew beer in 1634.  Initially, they only shared their beer with the public during festivals.  Otehrwise, laymen did not have access to it as the monks reserved it for their own consumption.  Brother Barnabas created the recipe for this bock beer.  The headquarters used to be at the restaurant Giesinger Nockherberg, which is still home to the popular Starkbierfest.  The Wiesen (Oktoberfest brew) has 6% alcohol.

[7] Founded in 1397, Spaten moved in the 19th Century to Marssstraße, where the administrative headquarters remains.  In 1894, this brewery introduced the Munich Pale.  The Wiesen (Oktoberfest brew) is 5.8% alcohol.

[8] Elisabeth (“Ellis”) Kaut is best known as the creator of a character known to generations of German children.  The mischievous kobold Pumuckl, first appeared on radio plays and later appeared on television, in books she wrote, and in two feature films.

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