When my children were young, our family would spend at least one day at Busch Gardens each summer. My favorite section was Germany—where, as we lunched in the Festhaus, a platform would descend from the ceiling loaded with lederhosen- and dirndl-clad Oktoberfest celebrants singing “Ein Prosit” (a toast) and dancing the polka, many waving beer steins. I remember thinking, now that’s how we should all enjoy life! I’m not a big fan of beer, but who doesn’t love a good party? Especially one to welcome the glorious season of autumn, when the refreshing cooler temperatures cause the leaves to put on a magic show of rainbow colors before raining down to create a crunchy carpet of natural mulch. Oktoberfest may be the biggest of the many harvest festivals around the world—including our own Henley Fest and Chiles Fall Harvest. Sadly, the descending platform is no longer part of the Festhaus features.
Oktoberfest is a two-week festival and carnival held annually in Munich, Bavaria, from mid-September to the first Sunday in October. This year, the 188th festival runs from Sept. 16 to Oct. 3 —which means that it is already over! It often ends on Unification Day, Germany’s national holiday. The largest folk festival (or volksfeste) in the world, it is also the largest beer festival, with over 6 million revelers consuming 2 million gallons of ale each year as they enjoy German gemütlichkeit, or coziness, friendliness, and good cheer. In addition to large quantities of strong Festbier, the festival features rides, games, and traditional foods such as bratwurst, strudel, knödel (dumplings), and giant pretzels [nationalgeographic.com].
Bavaria is a state in southeastern Germany with Munich as its capital. Oktoberfest originated as a celebration of the wedding on October 12, 1810 of Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I of Bavaria from 1825 to 1848) to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The royal wedding was celebrated with a parade and horse races held on the fields in front of the city gates—named Theresienwiese (Theresa’s Meadow) in honor of the bride—to which all citizens of Munich were invited. Bavarians enjoyed the festivities so much that they asked that it be continued the next year—and every year thereafter! Locals call the festival Wiesn, the colloquial name for these fairgrounds. Later in the 19th century, games such as tree climbing, bowling alleys, and swings were added, followed by carnival booths and rides. In 1905, in response to complaints about October’s cool, rainy weather, the festival dates were moved back to September, becoming an ushering in of October. The uniquely German tourist attraction became so popular that eventually the City of Munich took it over.
Since 1887, a parade showcasing the splendidly decorated horse teams of the breweries and the live brass bands that play in the festival tents has become an annual part of the festival. The parade takes place on the morning of the first Saturday of Oktoberfest, serving as the official prelude to the celebration. Thousands of costumed celebrants walk from Maximilian Street through the center of Munich to the 100-acre Oktoberfest grounds, led by a banner featuring the Bavarian coat of arms. At noon, a 12-gun salute is followed by the tapping of the first keg of Oktoberfest beer by the Mayor of Munich with the proclamation “O’zapft is!” (“It’s tapped!”). Crowds line up at their favorite beer halls as early as 7 a.m. and rush to snag the best tables for when they finally open at noon.
The official Oktoberfest trachten (costumes) for Germans and tourists alike consist of traditional lederhosen for men—knee-length leather breeches with suspenders and embroidery—and dirndls for women— skirt, blouse, laced bodice, and apron. The lederhosen are often accompanied by knee-high socks and wool Tyrolean hats. These costumes are based on working clothes for early German mountain- and country-dwelling peasants. These days, authentic costumes range in price from 100-200 euros to custom, hand-made deerskin lederhosen for 1,500-1,800 euros. The myriad “tents,” or huge wooden beer halls, seat as many as 9,000 people, with interior balconies and bandstands where oompah bands play traditional German drinking songs as well as American favorites such as “Angels” by Robbie Williams and “Country Roads” by John Denver. The huge crowds sing along with verve, and many climb up on the benches to dance.
Only six breweries are represented at Munich’s Oktoberfest: Späten, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Poschorr, Hofbräu and Löwenbräu. These breweries are showcased because they adhere to Germany’s beer purity law, Reinheitsgebot, which dictates there must be only four ingredients in a beer: water, malt, hops, and yeast. Ironically, beer from the official Bavarian State brewery Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world, is not sold. Rides include a swing carousel, toboggan, Skyfall drop tower, bumper cars, ferris wheel, and the Five Loops, the largest transportable roller coaster in the world. The “Oide Wiesn” historical section at the southern end of the Theresienwiese recreates the original 19th century celebration with horse racing, historic rides, a museum tent, and a petting zoo. This year’s festival also features special events such as an ecumenical mass and the Landlords’ concert.
Oktoberfest is such an iconic celebration of German heritage that it is now celebrated all over Germany and across the world. If you can’t make it to Bavaria, you might try spinoff celebrations in Cincinnati, Ohio; LaCrosse, Wisconsin; Frankenmuth, Michigan; or Kitchener, Ontario, which have large German-American populations. In Cincinnati, two decidedly non-Bavarian traditions have been added: the chicken dance, performed to “Der Ententanz” (duck dance) by Swiss musician Werner Thomas, and weiner dog races, in which dachshunds compete, often dressed up as hot dogs. As Feli the German—who shares her authentic Oktoberfest details on YouTube— explains, you will not find these decidedly American add-ons in Munich. She compares Oktoberfest to an American state fair, and emphasizes that it is a family event in which beer plays only a part.
Unfortunately, I’ve never made it to Germany to attend an authentic Oktoberfest in person, but local celebrations are the next best thing. Prost!
Charlottesville area celebrations include:
Frontier Culture Museum (Staunton): October 7, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. German cultural demonstrations (tickets required) frontiermuseum.org/2023-events/oktoberfest
Blue Mountain Brewery: September 29 – October. 8, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Special menu and live music bluemountainbrewery.com/calendar
The Forum Hotel (UVA’s Darden School): Sept. 30 and October 14, 2 to 5 p.m. (tickets required)
Stable Craft Brewing, Waynesboro: October 14, 12 to 10 p.m. Live music and games
Edelweiss Restaurant, Staunton: Authentic German cuisine year-round
Bavarian Chef, Madison: Authentic German cuisine year-round