An Insider's Guide to Travel: News, Tips, Information & Inspiration

Fall / Festivals / Germany & the Netherlands

What Americans Don’t Get About Oktoberfest

Share on: Share on Google+
Image Credit: Markburger83

Image Credit: Markburger83

You know it’s autumn when a majority of Americans revive that one-fourth patriotic German descent and give in to their true calling: beer. Lots of it. Put on your lederhosen, your ancestors need you now, drinking up that never-ending Löwenbräu. German ex-pat Cathrine Schermann shares what most Americans don’t understand about Oktoberfest and how you can party a bit more like the locals.

The Munich-based Oktoberfest is the largest fair of the world. More than 6 million attendees over a period of 16 days indulge in the culture of Germany’s most southern region, Bavaria. While over 70 percent of Germans attend the fair, an increasing number of foreigners, especially U.S. tourists, join the festivities with every reoccurring year.

Living in the States, mid September to early October may be the only time I will obstinately conceal my true origin due to the overload of friends and acquaintances who attempt to give their Octoberfest festivities a little more depth by inviting an “original” German. No thanks, I will politely reject this offer, just like the Mexican-American who isn’t interested in your Cinco de Mayo piñata party. And no thanks, I actually don’t like beer. I know, I am German. I am sorry.

It’s not just stereotypes and (lots of) beer.  Believe it or not, the 200-year-old festivities actually have some historical traditions and cultural significances that you should know. Here are 10 things to understand about Oktoberfest.

So the Oktoberfest is in September? Go figure.

Despite its name, the Oktoberfest actually starts in the end of September in order to benefit from the rather warmer September climate. In order to remember and honor the origin of the festivities, which was held in mid-October, the name of the event was never altered.

You are celebrating a wedding anniversary…

You might have thought you were attending the Oktoberfest at your own pleasure, but you are actually clinking glasses for an old King and his bride. The royal wedding celebration of the Bavarian King Ludwig I and his wife Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen mark the origin of the Oktoberfest. On October 12, 1810, the royal family invited the entire public to a five-day celebration, ending it with a big horse race. Due to the success and overall joy of the couple’s wedding, it was made an annual tradition and repeated ever since then, with the exception of a few instances due to wars and political circumstances.

Suddenly it all makes sense, and we need you to drink up, because you are drinking on behalf of a former German Queen and King.

… and there was no beer.

Ironically, back then nobody was interested in beer. In fact, beer became more popular at the end of the 19th century, when breweries had to get rid of their stored beer in fall in order to make room for the new.

Shame on you, you are raging on historical grounds.

If Therese knew what you were doing, she might not be an amused Queen. In fact, the Oktoberfest is held at the original place of the wedding celebration. Honoring the newly married Queen of Bavaria, this place was named Theresienwiese (‘Therese’s meadow’) where it is still held today. So please be kind and don’t vomit on historical terrain.

The mayor tells you when to drink.

In case you thought, you can just show up and drink, you were wrong. As an annual tradition, a carriage of horses, hauling the breweries’ beer kegs, introduce and celebrate the hosts and their families in an opening ceremony. After that, the events’ most anticipated ritual will take place: The tapping of the first beer by the current mayor on the first Saturday at noon. The mayor will speak the famous ‘O’zapft is!’ (‘It is tapped’) which which traditionally opens the alcohol consumption. This act still remains the annual pinnacle of the festivities, attracting politicians, celebrities and the press.

Forget about your Budweiser.

When in Munich you shall consume only German goodness. In fact, all beer sold at the Oktoberfest originated from Bavarian breweries that brew their beer according to strict guidelines from 1516. You may have heard of the utterly confusing sounding word Reinheitsgebot, which literally translates as “command of pureness.” It is a law (it is Germany after all) that defines the time and ingredients of a “pure” Bavarian brew. Indeed, the brewers are trying to make their Oktoberfest visitors really happy, by even adding one more percent of alcoholic content to their recipe.

Step aside drinkers, the fest is for families as well.

The Oktoberfest is actually a children’s fair too! Offering a plethora of activities, roller coasters, candies and treats, it is a popular destination for non-alcoholics and families. The Ferris wheel, Teufelsrad (‘Devil’s Wheel’) and swing carousel belong to the annual highlights of the fair and are run by family-operated businesses. In order to protect the family-oriented aspect of this fest, loud party music and ragging in the tents is not allowed until 6 p.m. in the evening.

How to get your German girl.

The traditional female wardrobe, the Dirndl, is not only a beautiful piece of clothing conveniently revealing tons of cleavage, but also a practical dating tool. Women trying to get lucky, can be easily spot by their bow tied around their waist. And here the same applies as in politics, just remember, left side is good and right side is not so much fun. Meaning, if the bow is tied to the left side, the woman is signaling her singleness and you are good to go. If the bow is tied to the right, you are not in luck, too bad, this one is already married. Tying the bow in the middle, is considered as lame and not allowed according to German customs.

Steve Jobs made it to Germany.

It wouldn’t be the 21st century, if there wasn’t an app for it. You can conveniently spot the nearest booths and tents on your smart phone,  as well as the dictionary, map and more interactive features.

Not all of Germany is like the Oktoberfest.

Texas isn’t much like New York, is it? Germany might be a smaller country, but that does not mean that all 16 provinces are  indistinguishable. In fact, due to its longstanding existence and historical transformations, all provinces unequally emerged over the years varying uniquely in their customs, traditions and dialects.In practice, originating from Germany’s northeast province, I have never owned a Dirndl, nor finished a real Bavarian beer. So please don’t equate Munich with Hamburg. I won’t do the same for Dallas and Manhattan.

Now that you know these historical traditions and customs, you have the permission to attend the Oktoberfest and look for plenty of left-tied bows. Go and make Therese proud and also be kind to all attendees. This year, I might actually come with you and I even finish my first Löwenbräu.

By Cathrine Schermann for PeterGreenberg.com