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A tradition that goes back more than 200 years: : the Oktoberfest in Munich

Wheat beer, roller coasters and lots of people: the Oktoberfest is famous in Germany and beyond. Every year, up to seven million visitors travel to Bavaria’s capital city of Munich to experience the world’s largest fair. I visited the Oktoberfest with Larissa, a student from Brazil, and learned a lot about traditions, customs and long waits outside beer tents.

by Johanna Wendel

Oktoberfest tent © DAAD/Johanna Wendel
Oktoberfest tent . © DAAD/Johanna Wendel

Most of you will have heard of Munich’s Oktoberfest. Every year from mid-September to early October the “Theresienwiese” fairground in Munich hosts the world’s largest fair, where people from all over Germany and many other countries around the world come together to party or to enjoy the many fairground rides. There are also many traditions and customs relating to the famous fair. But how did it all start?

The very first Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest © DAAD/Johanna Wendel
Oktoberfest . © DAAD/Johanna Wendel

The first Oktoberfest took place on 17 October 1810. It was held to celebrate the royal wedding between Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, and included a large horse race. In honour of the princess, the field where it took place was named “Theresienwiese”, which is why the Oktoberfest today also bears the nickname “Wiesn”. The attendees enjoyed the first Oktoberfest so much that it was held again in the following years. In 1819 the city of Munich took over the organisation of the event, making it a fixture in the life of the city and its inhabitants.

Over time, the fair has changed: the horse race was dropped, and more and more large beer tents and fairground rides such as merry-go-rounds, haunted houses and roller coasters were added. They are still an important part of the fair today. In addition to large beer tents by well-known Bavarian breweries and merry-go-rounds for adults and children there are also many other traditions around the Oktoberfest.
 

Dirndl, Maß and Hendl are everywhere at the Oktoberfest

Although the Bavarian dialect is becoming rarer, it is alive and well at the Wiesn, where it has lost none of its charm and can be heard in every corner of the fairground. Here are the most important terms you should know:

Dirndl

The first thing you’ll notice is that almost all the women at the Oktoberfest wear the same type of dress, known as a “Dirndl”. The Dirndl isn’t actually a traditional item of clothing; it was worn in the late 19th century mainly by people from the city when they were on holiday in the countryside. In fact, the Dirndl has only become more widespread at fairs and events in the Alpine regions and southern Germany in the past thirty years, and seems to be especially popular with the younger generation.

Maß

A “Maß” is basically the unit of measure for buying beer at the Wiesn, namely exactly one litre. A “Maß” is served in a “Maßkrug”, or beer mug, and is the only size available in the beer tents. Soft drinks can also be ordered in “halbe Maß”, or half litre sizes, but beer is only available in whole litres – the waitresses make no exceptions!

(Brat-) Hendl

A “Hendl” is a roast chicken. Along with beer, roast chicken is the most popular menu item in the Oktoberfest beer tents; up to half a million are consumed each year. In addition to Hendl, which is usually sold in servings of half a chicken, other famous meat dishes at the Oktoberfest include Haxn, a piece of pork leg, and Würschtl, or sausages.


Oide Wiesn

When the hustle and bustle gets too much, visitors can take a trip back in time and visit the “Oide Wiesn”. “Oide Wiesn” means “old Wiesn”, and this “Historical Oktoberfest” hosts a large number of traditional fairground rides and nostalgic stalls. Visitors can climb into a swing boat that is almost one hundred years old and powered only by the riders’ physical strength, or pop in to the traditional theatre “Auf geht’s beim Schichtl”, which has been part of the Oktoberfest since 1869.

 

Visiting the Oktoberfest with Larissa from Brazil

Larissa from Brazil © DAAD/Johanna Wendel
Larissa from Brazil . © DAAD/Johanna Wendel

“Although I’ve been living in Munich for five years, I’ve never been to the Oktoberfest”, admits Larissa as we enter the fairground. Larissa is originally from Brazil and is currently studying for her Master’s degree at TU Munich. She has decided at the last minute to visit the Oktoberfest to get to know her adopted home a little better.

Now Larissa is wearing a traditional Dirndl borrowed from a friend. She points to the ribbon tied in a bow around her hip and explains: “Tied on the left means single, tied on the right means in a relationship.” That’s a local tradition a friend here in Munich told her about, but she’s not quite sure whether people really take it seriously.
 

Laura and Johanna in dirndl © DAAD/Johanna Wendel
Laura and Johanna in dirndl . © DAAD/Johanna Wendel

On the fairground

The first thing we notice is the smell of ginger bread (Lebkuchen) drifting over from a stall to the left of the entrance. On the right, men in “Lederhosen”, the traditional leather trousers, are trying to run up a moving conveyor belt without falling over; this is the Oktoberfest’s oldest fairground ride, the “Toboggan”. As a reward, the brave heroes who make it to the top are allowed to come back down on a slide. Some visitors stop to enjoy the spectacle of the struggling men. We stay and watch for a while too.

It’s the last Saturday of the Oktoberfest and the fairground is extremely crowded. The weather is dull, but we barely notice because of the many happy faces around us. “We don’t have a fair like this in Brazil. My mother wouldn’t be able to imagine how huge it is”, explains Larissa as we squeeze past souvenir stalls and groups of people. In a moment, she wants to meet with her friends and try to get one of the popular seats in one of the 14 beer tents. Only in the beer tents can you buy the famous Maß – they aren’t allowed elsewhere on the fairground.

Getting into the beer tent turns out to be more difficult than expected. It’s already 3 p.m., and most visitors find their place in the tent early in the day or reserve it months in advance. Now we face a long wait as we stand outside the beer tent wondering how we’ll get in. “The doormen don’t look as if they take bribes”, jokes Larissa. We spend a good hour in the queue, then we’re finally inside.

beer tent © DAAD/Johanna Wendel
beer tent . © DAAD/Johanna Wendel

In the beer tent, the mood is celebratory

From the inside, the tent seems much larger than its exterior suggests. It has room for over 8,000 people, and it’s full to bursting. Although the air is already a bit thin, the visitors are in high spirits and having fun. This is also due to the band playing on a stage at the centre of the tent. “Just so you know, the waitresses take some getting used to”, warns Larissa’s friend once we have sat down on a beer bench. And it’s true, the server’s tone is a little harsh. That doesn’t seem to bother most visitors. The waitresses’ robust manner is simply part of the Wiesn. Larissa peers at the large beer in front of her. “I never drink this much beer normally. But it’s precisely what most people come here for”, she says. Then she sings along to the familiar oldies and modern pop classics with her friends around the table and ends up staying a little longer after all.

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