What springs to mind when we say “Oktoberfest”?
To some, Oktoberfest is about beer, feasting and having a good time. For others, it’s all about tradition – as important to Bavarian culture as St. Patrick’s Day is to the Irish.
Oktoberfest is the world’s largest beer festival and funfair, taking place in Munich, Germany every September. In this short blog post, we’re going to unpack the true meaning of Oktoberfest, shedding a light on Wiesn in all its glory.
There’s something about Wiesn
First things first, let’s sort out some terminology.
Did you know that locals actually call Oktoberfest “Wiesn”? Wiesn comes from ‘Theresienwiese’ which is the place Oktoberfest is held in every year.
Theresienwiese or shall we say ‘Theresens Wiese’ (that is Therese’s Meadow) was named after Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen, who is the very reason why Wiesn came into being in the first place.
The story of a young countess and her prince
The year was 1810.
After multiple suitors (one even including the French Emperor, Napoleon) and months of royal courtship, the 18-year-old Therese was wed to the unassuming Ludwig, the Crown Prince of Bavaria.
The wedding, held in Court Chapel of the Munich Residenz on October 12, was followed by a 5-day public affair.
The whole of Munich, which was enveloped in dazzling lights, took part in the festivity. The old Bavarian city was brimming with music, dancing, drinking and feasting for both the common and upper class. Free food and drink were even provided, and some theatres opened for free.
But at the centre stage of the celebration was a horse race, which took place on the 16th at a nameless meadow that would later be known as Theresienwiese.
You wouldn’t exactly expect a horse race to be characteristic of a wedding celebration, but horse racing was actually an old, lost Munich tradition that dated back to 1448. In fact, the Oktoberfest horse race that took place in 1810 was witnessed by 40,000 spectators – proof of the event’s popularity during the day.
From horse racing to beer chugging
Just like the fate that befell the German monarchy, horse racing slowly faded into obscurity.
Although food and beer booths were introduced in 1818, it took many decades for Oktoberfest to become what it is today.
By the late 20th century, due to popular demand, the beer booths turned into large beer tents erected by each of the famous Munich breweries. These temporary structures were large enough to host around 6,000 people at a time!
Also by popular demand was the duration of the festival, which was extended to 2 weeks and pushed forward to September (when the days are longer and the weather is warmer).
Far gone from its royal roots, it was at this moment that Oktoberfest transformed into the beer festival that we know to this day.
The modern Wiesn
Ever wondered what Oktoberfest is actually like in the 21st century?
First things first, the Mayor of Munich kicks off Wiesn by tapping the first keg while shouting “Ozapft is!” (“It has been tapped” or “It’s party time” in English) – a cry that marks the start of the festivities (which, by the way, is not all about drinking).
You’ll find an eclectic mix of activities. Some attendees (often locals) will dress up in traditional German clothing (called tracht; dirndl for women and lederhosen for men).
Parades, traditional Bavarian music, dancing, shooting competitions, open-air performances, games, and carnival rides accompany the celebrations.
All in all, Wiesn is as much of a festival for cultured teetolers as it is for the millions of adults who love a good drink.
And yes, it’s estimated that Wiesn draws more than 6 million people from all around the world. In 2019, for example, 70% of Oktoberfest revellers were Bavarian locals, 15% from other parts of Germany and the remaining from abroad, including Italy 3.9%, the US 3.7%, Austria 2.9%, the UK 1.4% and Ireland 0.7%.
Where do we go from here?
The best way to celebrate Wiesn is to go to Munich and experience it first-hand. The 2022 festivities begin on Saturday, September 17 and ends Monday, October 3.
A getaway to Germany might be easier said than done, so for those who want a taste of Oktoberfest without stepping foot outside of the country, quasi-Wiesn celebrations are worth checking out. In the US, for example, local celebrations can be found in the following:
- Denver Oktoberfest (Denver, Colorado)
- Fredericksburg Oktoberfest (Fredericksburg, Texas)
- Linde Oktoberfest (Tulsa, Oklahoma)
- Zinzinnati Oktoberfest (Cincinnati, Ohio)
- Frankenmuth Oktoberfest (Frankenmuth, Michigan)
- Helen Oktoberfest (Helen, Georgia)
- Munich on the East River (East River, New York City)
- Trapp Family Lodge Oktoberfest (Stowe, Vermont)
- Leavenworth Oktoberfest (Leavenworth, Washington State)
- Mount Angel Oktoberfest (Mount Angel, Oregon)
- Alpine Village Oktoberfest (California)
- Four Peaks Oktoberfest (Tempe Town Lake, Arizona)
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