Oktoberfest: A History Lesson

September 28, 2011 by

Eating & Restaurants, Festivals & Events, Local Recommendations

Oktoberfest has a long history - of fun!

Munich is home of Germany’s Oktoberfest, and it has a rich history. The first “Oktoberfest”, or something like it, took place in 1810. That’s when Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig married Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen – an unusual match in that the bride was Protestant and the groom, like most Bavarians, Catholic.

To celebrate the event, classics-mad Ludwig staged something like a revival of the Olympic Games, then in its millennium-and-a-half abeyance. The main attraction was a horse race staged on fields which were named after his new bride: Theresienwiese.

The event was so popular that it returned in 1811 and then sporadically in the ensuing years. But by the time the Crown Prince became King Ludwig I in 1825, Oktoberfest was firmly established as an annual festival. It would eventually move forward to coincide with more favorable weather and beer-drinking conditions (in Bavaria, there is a centuries-long tradition of drinking beer in late September before it goes bad – this is pre-refrigeration, of course). Oktoberfest wasn’t all the king gave to Munich – he oversaw its evolution into a neo-classical city, with additions like the Bavaria statue and Ruhmeshalle (“hall of fame”) which still watch over the Theresienwiese.

In 1896 (the same year, incidentally, that the Olympic Games returned to Greece) the small stalls which once dotted the fields transformed into something like the enormous tents that the visitor sees today. Wars and inflation saw Oktoberfest cancelled on numerous occasions in the first half of the 20th century.  But in 1950, Munich’s mayor tapped the first keg and announced “O’zapft is!” (“it’s tapped” in Bavarian dialect), a new tradition and an auspicious omen, because since then the festival has returned every year without fail. And so it continues to the present day as the largest fair in the world.

- James Conway

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