But Why Does It Start In September?
I want you to do me a favor. Close your eyes, and think back: back to college, back to Mardi Gras, back to Cancun. Imagine biggest party you’ve ever been to in your life. For some, it’s that once-in-a-lifetime trip to New Orleans; for others, it’s the frat fest at Halloween where there are more little party cups than there are human beings. Whatever that uber-party is, picture it in your mind.
Now multiply it by, oh, at least a million. You might—might—approach the jubilee that is Oktoberfest, the largest public festival in the world. With an average of six million annual visitors and only God knows how many beers, the yearly festival in Munich dwarfs every other celebration on earth—save, maybe, the millennium celebration. And unlike other parties that stop after, oh, one or two days, Oktoberfest sees fit to keep on truckin’ for two weeks. That’s a lot of beer, but fortunately there are plenty of people to drink it. Stretching from the last weekend of September to the first weekend of October, Oktoberfest attracts visitors from every corner of the globe—and has inspired a plethora of tributes in just as many countries. Odds are, if you’re anywhere near some fairgrounds, there’ll be people in Bavarian dress clinking mugs and singing polka.
But despite the legions of drunk youths (known as “beer corpses” by the locals) stumbling through Munich every year, Oktoberfest certainly isn’t just about the bier. In fact, overconsumption of alcohol is looked down upon by nearly every Oktoberfest veteran as a sign of youthful inexperience. Oktoberfest is also about the people, the food, and the music—all of them coming together to celebrate a German cultural tradition dating back to 1810.
The first Oktoberfest began on October 12, 1810 as a massive horse race, all to celebrate the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The festival grounds were named Theresienwiese in honor of the princess; even today, locals refer affectionately to them as “Die Weisen.” Unsurprisingly, the revelry surrounding the races was tremendously popular, and by 1813 the festival was declared mandatory for every year. People loved it so much it soon stretched to two weeks in length; as the years went on, organizers pushed the starting point back into September to take advantage of the milder weather. So now—somewhat counter-intuitively—a festival named for October begins the month before!
It’s not all fun and games, though; even good times hit their bad times. In the past 197 years, Munich has called off Oktoberfest 24 times due to famine, disease, and two world wars. In 1980, a lone far-right nutcase struck another blow with a pipe bomb that killed thirteen people and injured 200 more. Despite it all, however, Germany’s most famous party always bounced back, and today an estimated 15% of its 6.5 million visitors come from overseas.
Every Oktoberfest begins the same way: a crowd of people 8,000-strong marches through Munich, dressed in traditional Bavarian clothes and led by the town “kindl”–a sort of ‘town mascot,’ usually a small child or young woman, who represents the Munich coat of arms. After the parade, the city mayor officially kicks off the festivities by tapping a ceremonial keg and declaring (to the joy of the crowd) “it’s been tapped!” From there, thirsty festival-goers (many who arrived at 9 AM for the evening event) finally get to taste the special Oktoberfest beer, a strong, dark brew only made during the festival. It’s drank by the gallons in streets, bars, and especially in the 10,000-capacity festival tent!
Of course, some (most) of us can’t hop a plane to Munich any time soon, so how do we celebrate on our side of the pond? Well-prepared brewmeisters can twist open a bottle of homemade beer, but the rest of us can find ways to participate, too.
Consider cooking one of these German and Bavarian cuisine-inspired recipes:
Holly’s German Spaetzle Dumplings
Shrimp and Fresh Herb Spaetzle with Creamy Tomato Sauce
Grilled Bratwurst with German Potato Salad
German Soft Pretzels
Ritter’s Inn Sauerbraten and Dumplings
Or try making your own sauerkraut with help from this video.
For the less culinarily-inclined, many towns around the country throw Oktoberfest bashes—all you need to do is go, pay, and enjoy. We recommend doing this even if you do cook for yourself; part of Oktoberfest’s appeal is the crowd!
Whatever you end up doing, you’d better make sure to do it soon. There’s only 11 days of Oktoberfest left…and the clock is ticking!
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