Welcome to Oktoberfest!
But be warned this isn’t just a bunch of party tents with lots of decent beer. No, by deciding to travel to this famous Volksfest, you’ve agreed to have the entire concept called Germany crunched into your skull by a sadomasochistic Bavarian mistress. She’s a pagan goddess with a lion at her heel, and in your hazy drunkenness she’ll indoctrinate you with all the wrong stereotypes about this country.
She’ll strap you down, peel back your eyelids and show you a heady mix of beer, breasts, leather, meat, and Bavarian bourgeois superiority. If you’re lucky, maybe she’ll even slap a dark green felt hat on you and take you on a whirlwind tour of the region’s prized “laptops and Lederhosen” economy as you belt down another Maß. And then she will release you to stagger home, hung-over, sweaty, full of misinformation, but most likely happy and content.
Conceived in 1810 as a celebration of the marriage of King Ludwig to some innocent young princess named Therese, the original Oktoberfest was an organized tournament of military horse races on the Wiese, or meadow, where it’s been held ever since. After a few years everyone realized that horse racing was really boring compared to drinking beer from chalices the size of your head, and the greatest folk party in the world was born.
In 1850 the allegorical statue Bavaria was unveiled on the Wiesn, and from then on, this 20 metre-high Valkyrie-like figure, accompanied by her royal lion, has presided over the proceedings. With that buxom pagan goddess standing guard, it quickly became clear that this was where the Bavarians would come for annual relief from their Catholic consciences. This was the Sin City of yore, outside the jurisdiction of the Church. By the end of the 19th century, the first grilled chicken stands were set up, and now almost every animal on God’s green Earth is impaled on a rough stick and roasted over a beech-wood fire at Oktoberfest.
Bavaria’s greatest cultural export, Oktoberfest has a strange hold on Germany and the rest of the world. Sure, other parts of the country have their own grotesque folk festivals – the Catholic Rhineland goes in for its pre-Lent Karneval and secular Berlin used to have its bare-nippled techno party the Love Parade. But the Bavarians decided to fill that barren party gap between midsummer and Christmas with an unparalleled Dionysian orgy more than two centuries ago. And Oktoberfest’s subsequent global success has strengthened German stereotypes everywhere.
Occasionally, you might meet a northern German peeved that his cultural identity has been hijacked by the Oktoberfest, but a glance at the TV during the next fortnight will show you very few Germans actually embarrassed by the shameless debauchery on display. Daily coverage will consist of gleeful middle-aged chat show hosts lurching around Käfer’s, the celebrity tent, mistaking young starlets in dirndls for waitresses, then forcing large, spongey blue and orange microphones into the faces of drunken B-Listers. Even the regular German newsreaders giving their daily updates from the studio will drop their wonted sobriety and smile indulgently – as their eyes gleam momentarily with sex.
It’s a garish mix of medieval imagery – such as whole oxen roasting on a spit – and naked commercial opportunism. Every year, the price for a litre of beer rises another 40 or 50 cents. But that hasn’t stopped Oktoberfest from becoming a concept known around the world. These days it’s something people celebrate on fields in autumn in any country where beer is legal. It’s become a global movement, a state of mind, where every citizen of the Earth can release their inner Bavarian.
Local pride with global reach
Much to their credit, the Bavarians do not begrudge the fun to the swarms of tourists that descend onto the Wiesn each year. There is, after all, a theatrical spirit behind the funny traditional costumes and the outsize beer-glass props that appeals to most people. Americans, Australians, Italians, Japanese, and countless others are the audience for this big show. There’s no mistaking Munich’s pride here – it’s a tour de force in local patriotism.
It’s at Oktoberfest that Bavarians betray their secret desire for independence. The state’s special history as a sovereign kingdom, its cultural and religious differences to the rest of Germany, burst from every true blue Bavarian’s chest.
Pride in the obscure traditions of Oktoberfest never seems to diminish: genuine joy breaks out when Munich’s mayor cracks open the first barrel and cries, “O’zapft is!” as the foam hisses into the first mug. Then there’s the Trachtenumzug, a seven-kilometre parade of 8,000 people in traditional folk dress. It’s a mad, ornate pageant of marching bands, hunting clubs, and liveried coaches, led by the dignitaries of Bavaria and Munich and the Münchner Kindl – a kind of Oktoberfest prom queen chosen from the city’s social scene for both her comeliness and her knowledge of Bavarian history.
It all makes Oktoberfest a Bavarian juggernaut unlikely to be stopped anytime soon. The festival’s statistics are consistently mind-boggling. In 2007, 6.2 million people consumed 6.9 million litres of beer (a new record), over 140,000 pairs of sausages, and over half a million roast chickens.
So drop any prissy opposition you might have and realize that scoffing at this touristy, foolish monster of fun is pointless. Any protests will be roundly drowned out by the brass oompah bands and the roaring plastic lions. The pagan mistress is about force you to join in.
Ben Knight ([email protected])
Munich’s Oktoberfest runs from September 22 until October 7 this year.