A large crowd of people sitting down at a beer tent during Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest: The History and Worldwide Influence

Oktoberfest, the world’s biggest festival. Beginning all the way back in 1810, this festival has come a long way. It started with a five-day wedding celebration and evolved into something longer and grander. It has reached a point where even other countries have gotten in on the fun by creating their own versions. This article will be discussing the history of Oktoberfest and its traditions, as well as its international influence. Why it began, what its customs are, and, of course, why something called Oktoberfest takes place mostly in September.

A group of people watching a parade procession go by at Oktoberfest 1959
Original photo by Toni Sala on Wikimedia Commons, found on https://commons.wikimedia.org/

A Brief History of Oktoberfest

The origins of Oktoberfest begin with a royal marriage. On October 12th, 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, and Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen  joined each other in matrimony. The newlyweds invited the citizens of Munich to celebrate with them in the field in front of the city.  People now know these fields as the Theresienwiese (Theresa’s Meadow), shortened to the title “Weisn”. This was done in honor of the princess.

During the celebration, the newlyweds treated the citizens to a feast. On October 17th, there was a horse race held in the fields, which ended up being very popular. In response, it was decided to hold the horse race again the following year. This began the tradition of Oktoberfest.

In 1811, alongside the return of the horse race, they added an addition. The new addition was the inclusion of an agricultural festival. They designed this part of the festival to show off agricultural success and to bring in revenue. This is a tradition that, to this day, continues every four years at Oktoberfest.

By the end of the decade, the first food and drink booths appeared. Games and rides also began to appear. This was also the turning point in the festival becoming a publicly funded event. In the earliest years, only private sponsors funded Oktoberfest. However, as it became more successful, the city of Munich would take on the responsibilities of funding and organizing the event. This was due to the event’s popularity, and how much revenue it brought into the city.

From then on, despite the struggles or wars and pandemics, the Oktoberfest celebration has continued to grow and change, while still holding on to tradition. From rides to parades to, of course, the beer halls, Oktoberfest has a multitude of interesting traditions to talk about.

Why September

One of the biggest questions people have about Oktoberfest is why most of it takes place in September. After all, “October” is in the name. The reason for this is actually very simple. As the fair got bigger and more successful, the timeline was increased. So instead of a few days of festivities, it was a few weeks. The weather in Bavaria in October, however, can be quite cold. As a result, it was decided to start the fair in September. The days are longer and warmer, allowing for people to spend more time and money at the festival.

A young woman holding three mugs of beer in front of a beer hall at Oktoberfest
Picture by Markburger83 at English Wikipedia, found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Oktoberfest Beer

What is probably the most well-known about Oktoberfest is the beer. When people think of Oktoberfest, they surely have a certain image in their minds. A waitress in traditional clothing, serving German beer in a large stein glass at a crowded beer tent/fest hall.

The beer at Oktoberfest has famously high standards. To start, it must come from a brewery within the city limits of Munich. However, this is not the only standard. The beer must also fall in line with certain standards of purity.

Called the Reinheitsgebot (Edict of Purity), it ensures beer is made only using barley, hops, and water as its ingredients. This guarantees the quality of the beer is excellent, no harmful ingredients are added, and that the price of the beer is fixed. The actual type of beer served at the event is referred to as Märzen beer. It is a specific type of beer that has a higher alcoholic content than usual (around 6%).

Fest Halls

The fest halls were not originally a part of the Oktoberfest tradition. Beer was initially served to people from small booths. As time went on, and bigger crowds appeared, there was a need for more space. In order to fit everyone, the organizers worked together with the breweries to create new places for the festival attendees. These new fest halls first came to fruition in 1896, and have stuck around ever since.

People may know about the fest halls, but they may not know how varied they really are. There are 14 large halls and 21 smaller halls in total. There are not just differences between the larger and smaller ones, but between the individual halls themselves. The smaller tents are usually the quieter, more family-friendly option. Less people, less rowdy music, and a more calming experience. The larger tents are the more well-known ones, and the ones that draw the largest crowds.

While there is some variety, they tend to be less relaxing in nature than the smaller ones. In general, each fest hall, regardless of size, has its own thing going on. Different number of seats, different music, theming, food, beer.

All of these can vary greatly depending on the specific hall one chooses to visit. In the past, the biggest hall was the Pschorrbräu-Festhalle. In the early 1900s, it had 12,000 seats total. The number has, though, in recent years, become smaller. The title of the biggest fest hall is now taken by the Winzerer Fähndl, which has 10,900 seats total. Both the small and large tents have their own important events that are held as well; they are for more than just drinking beer and eating food. One of these important events is the “O’zapt is!” tradition that opens the festival.

A group of horses pulling a decorated brewery float in an Oktoberfest parade
Original photo by Hullbr3ach on Wikimedia Commons, found on https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Opening Day Traditions and Parades

In comparison to the other traditions of the festival, “O’zapt is!” is relatively new. Beginning in 1950, the event has the mayor taps the first beer barrel at the festival. The first mayor to do this was Thomas Wimmer, and to this day the tradition continues. This is not the only important open day festivity, however.

There is also an opening day parade featuring the staff of Oktoberfest. This was a trend that began in the year 1887. The parade is the entry of the landlords and breweries that are a part of the celebration. Somebody dressed up as the Münchner Kindl leads the parade. The Münchner Kindl is a doll that appears on the coat of arms of Bavaria.  One of the parade’s features is decorated floats of each participant led by horses or oxen. The parade also has different bands walking through. This was not the first time Oktoberfest ever held a parade, though.

The first parades at Oktoberfest were held in honor of the Crown Prince and Princess. The earliest being the first celebrations in 1810, as a celebration of their union. They held another parade in 1835 for their 25th wedding anniversary. However, this parade did not become a tradition until 1950. Nowadays, the parade features thousands of people from all over Germany in traditional costume. There is also music, as well as elaborate floats being paraded through. This parade is also led by someone dressed up as the Münchner Kindl.

Men and women in traditional Bavarian clothing dancing together under a large tent
Original photo by digital cat on Flickr, found on https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The Oktoberfest Fashion

One of Oktoberfest’s most iconic and recognizable aspects is the traditional Bavarian outfits being worn. For men, this is lederhosen (leather pants), and for women, this is the dirndl (shortened from “dirndlgewand”, meaning “maid’s dress). These clothes originate from mid 1800s Bavaria and were worn by maids and farmers.

It was not until the 1870s that these styles were in fashion amongst the upper-class. Prince-Regent Luitpold was the first member of the upper-class to wear these clothes. Once one person was wearing them, the rest of the wealthy wanted in on the trend. Now, these once humble clothes have become an enduring symbol of Oktoberfest and Bavarian culture as a whole.

The Olympia Looping rollercoaster at night. It shows a rollercoaster with five different colored loops, with bright lights
Original photo by Manele r. from Flickr, found on https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Classic Attractions

Rides have been a staple of Oktoberfest since the early 1800s, as discussed earlier. However, these attractions have come a long way since then. People today may have found these rides boring, but to the people of the 1800s they were rare and exciting. At that point in time, even a couple of swings and a Ferris wheel were rare. It was not until the 1880s that Oktoberfest started to incorporate electric lighting and features in its attractions.

Oktoberfest holds a large variety of rides for all types of people. Classic, low-key rides like Ferris wheels and carousels for children and families are available. They stand side by side with thrill rides. There are now also a larger number and variety of games and vendors to participate in and buy from. One can find all of these attractions  in an area known as Luna Park.

The horse race was one of the attractions that inspired Munich to continue the Oktoberfest tradition. For years it continued, being one of the main annual events. However, by 1960, the horse races were ended. It was only with the 200th anniversary that this classic event made a comeback.

Over the years, Oktoberfest changed not just in size but how things are done. This changing and replacing of customs also takes place internationally. As the festival’s popularity grew, it began to cross borders. Soon, many countries and cities worldwide began to have their own way of celebrating Oktoberfest.

A large parade float that looks like two large beer mugs, made for Oktoberfest in Brazil
Original photo by Henrique on Wikimedia Commons, found on https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Oktoberfest Around the World

In many different continents, countries, towns, people have created their own version of this iconic festival. These versions do follow traditions set by the original, but also put their own spin on them. Some of these new editions are common amongst them, others unique to their specific celebration. I will now briefly go over a few of the biggest Oktoberfest celebrations around the world.

Oktoberfest Blumenau

The second biggest Oktoberfest in the world takes place in Blumenau, Saint Catarina in the south of Brazil. Blumenau’s settlers were from Germany, and that large German population kept certain traditions alive abroad. The celebration of Oktoberfest in Blumenau did not begin until the 1980s, however. It began in 1984 after extreme flooding of the Itajaí River. The people of Blumenau decided to hold the festival as a way to recuperate their economy from the damage. It also helped to raise the spirits of the people affected by the destruction. Unlike in Munich, this celebration takes place only in October.

Most of the traditions here are very similar to the ones in Munich. People hold parades, wear traditional clothing, and listen to traditional music, as well as eating lots of German food and drinking lots of beer. As for non-traditional features, there is the Oktoberfest Queen (and two Oktoberfest Princesses). This is a pageant where women compete against one another for the titles in a series of events. As we will see with other Oktoberfest celebrations around the world, they are not the only country that does this.

Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest

Canada’s largest Oktoberfest, and one of the largest in North America, is the one in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. The festival began in 1969, acting as a way to give tribute to German traditions and Canada’s own German diaspora. This festival, like the one in Munich, starts in September and ends in October. This festival mixes classic traditions with unique local ones, with attractions that appeal to all ages.

There is the Bavarian Feast, a place for people to come and enjoy authentic Bavarian food, music, and beer. They also have concerts, as well as restaurants and clubs that hold special events.  Events like Kidtoberfest and the Kinderfest Fall Fair are available for families and their kids. The Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest has a “Miss Oktoberfest” contest, similar in nature to the one in Blumenau. There is also a parade, although in dedication to celebrating a different holiday, that being Thanksgiving Day.

Oktoberfest Zinzinnati

The largest Oktoberfest in the United States is “Oktoberfest Zinzinnati”, in Cincinnati, Ohio. It has been around since 1976. This festival takes place over the course of a few days in mid-September. One of the biggest parts of the event is the music. Multiple bands play traditional German music, although more contemporary styles are present as well.

There is also a biergarten and multiple fest halls for people to visit. One of the most unique and well-known traditions of Oktoberfest Zinzinnati is the annual “Runnings of the Wieners”. The event features 100 dachshunds dressed up in hot dog costumes facing off against each other in a series of races. They go first in groups of ten, and the winners from each group compete in one final race.  People can also enter the Best Dressed Oktoberfest Contest, where people in traditional Bavarian clothing can enter and win prizes. Throughout all of these festivals, one can easily see the impact Oktoberfest has had on the world. A mix of Bavarian traditions, with each country or city putting their own flair on it.

The Impact of Oktoberfest

It started with a royal wedding reception, with horse races and feasting. Now, it is a showcase of Bavarian culture and traditions, entertaining people with beer, food, parades, and more. Originally just celebrated by those in Munich, and now reaching an international audience. Not just with people visiting the original, but by creating their own Oktoberfest. It is an event that mixes the old and the new, the customs of one country and those of many others.


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