A brief history of Oktoberfest
by Elissa Haney
Oktoberfest isn't just for Germans anymore. People have flocked to Germany from all parts of the globe to participate in the world's largest annual festival for nearly 200 years. In addition to the two-week celebration in Munich, the Bavarian capital where the tradition began, Oktoberfest is enjoyed in one form or another in cities and towns worldwide.
Ludwig's "royal" party
So how did this global party get started? (And why didn't anyone think of it sooner?) Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, who was later crowned King Ludwig I, wanted his people to share in the celebration of his marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810.
Ludwig organized a horse race and invited all the people of Munich. The royal party drew about 40,000 guests—a major rager, by ordinary standards, but only a small fraction of the 6.4 million people at Oktoberfest in 1997. A good time, and copious amounts of beer, were apparently had by all that first year. It was decided that the horse race would be held again in 1811, this time in conjunction with the state agricultural show.
Modern Munich celebration
Although the horse race was eventually abandoned, many characteristics of the early Oktoberfest celebrations have been retained, if not expanded upon. Munich's annual celebration is still held on the original site, dubbed Theresienwiese ("Theresa's fields"), in front of the city gates.
The agricultural show continues to be a feature, though it is only held every third year now. The tradition of beer and food stands, begun in 1818, continues today and is perhaps the most significantly developed aspect of Oktoberfest.
16 days, six million people, and some great big tents
The modern celebration has replaced the small tents with giant brewery-sponsored beer halls that can hold up to 5,000 people apiece. The party has also grown in length, to become a 16-day extravaganza ending the first Sunday in October.
The Oktoberfest in Munich has been cancelled at times in the past due to war and cholera. The festival opens with a grand parade of the Oktoberfest "landlords" and breweries, and features traditional dancers and costumed performers, the Riflemen's Procession, music...and, most definitely, beer!
- In 1997, Oktoberfesters consumed more than 5 ½ million liters of beer, about 45,000 liters of wine, and almost 165,000 liters of nonalcoholic beer.
- The local name for Oktoberfest, "Wies'n," is derived from Theresienwiese, the name of the field on which the festival is held.
- The festival halls in Munich can seat 94,000 people.
- The beers that the Munich breweries produce specially for Oktoberfest contain 4.5 percent alcohol.
- Cincinnati, Ohio, which claims to hold the "largest authentic Oktoberfest" in the U.S., draws about 500,000 people to its celebration.