Attending Oktoberfest in Munich is a prominent feature on a lot of Bucket Lists. Yet I wonder, how many people realise what Oktoberfest is really all about?
Like Oktoberfest itself, this post is not all about beer or drinking! The Wikipedia entry for Oktoberfest begins, “Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival celebrating beer…”. But although beer is obviously an important component of Oktoberfest, and indeed German culture as a whole, I’m afraid I would have to respectfully disagree with Wikipedia, at least in part. Because there’s so much more to the event than people getting drunk and making fools of themselves. In fact, you may be surprised to learn, there’s a strong family element to Oktoberfest.
In 2003, I was lucky enough to experience Oktoberfest (or as locals call it, die Wiesn, after the site on which it’s held: Theresienwiese – Therese’s meadow) for myself. And while the size and capacity of the beer tents was admittedly staggering (each of the dozen or more main ‘tents’ held at least 5000 people!), the event in general reminded me of a VERY busy North American fall fair.
Having lived in Germany myself, I know from personal experience that if there’s one thing the Germans love, it’s a good, village/town/city-wide, family street party. With the emphasis on family. They’ll latch onto any excuse to have one. With both hands. And refuse to let go. Even if that excuse is a wedding that took place over 200 years ago!
Oktoberfest was born in 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen (a-ha… the Theresienwiese thing suddenly makes sense, doesn’t it?). To celebrate the royal couple’s wedding, a week-long party was declared in Munich, lasting from October 10th to 17th. Over the years, the scale of the party has grown, such that it now lasts over two weeks, and is attended by visitors from around the globe.
Another thing that surprises many people, is that the majority of Oktoberfest isn’t actually in October! As the event gradually became longer, it also inched backwards in the calendar, to take advantage of the warmer September evenings. Oktoberfest 2014, for instance, runs from September 20th to October 5th. Which means that, at the time of posting, this year’s Oktoberfest is already more than halfway through. And some years the closing ceremonies take place as early as October 3rd(!), as happened in 2011 and will again be the case in 2016, for example.
These days, Theresienwiese during Oktoberfest looks like a massive travelling funfair from a distance, with its transient skyline of roller coasters, Ferris Wheels and other thrill rides. Up close, it also has the same excited sound and atmosphere of a temporary carnival. And like any good fair, the Oktoberfest festivities are punctuated by no end of special events, such as parades, concerts and family days. There’s even a special religious mass, a handheld cannon salute and a tour for pre-schoolers!
Across Theresienwiese, between the bigger attractions (and, yes, the breweries’ marquees), smaller stalls abound. Games, food, drink, candy, souvenirs… you name it. Including an agricultural show. So whether you want to play a German equivalent of Whack-A-Mole, indulge in some tasty Teutonic treats, or grab a keepsake for the dog-sitter back home, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for. And so will the kids.
The take-home message is this: Oktoberfest in Munich is essentially a really big street party, held mostly in September, to which the whole world and its family is invited. Have you RSVPed?
Oh! And they have beer, too.
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This post is based on an article called Oktoberfest in Munich I originally wrote as a featured blogger on Bucket List Publications in 2013.