Prost! Understanding German Customs Through the History of Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest is widely known to have originated from the royal wedding event between then Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The wedding took place on October 12, 1810, and the celebration was held in a field outside of the city gates. The merry-making lasted for five days in which beer estimated at one million gallons, plus 40,000 chickens and 80,000 pork sausages, were served to 40,000 citizens of Munich, Bavaria.
Delving into the origins of this world-renowned festivity entails looking into Germany’s culture and traditions as well. Let’s first focus on the German people’s love for fairy tales, since it is home to the Brothers Grimm, authors of well-loved happy-ending stories like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.
Weddings, as we know them, have always been the culmination of enchanting stories about love, in which the main characters lived “happily ever-after”. Hence, the people of Munich must have been truly overjoyed by the union between their crown prince and a beautiful princess who was then famous as one of the fairest among the princesses in Europe at that time.
It was indeed a time to be joyful in an era in which the Napoleonic wars in Europe had brought Prince Ludwig’s father, King Maximilian I, to the throne as the first King of Bavaria. It was a title granted by the French Emperor in exchange for Bavaria’s support and allegiance, through the “Treaty of Pressburg” in 1806. Aside from the title, Napoleon awarded King Maximilian I with more territories to add to his kingdom. The ploy saved Bavaria from the devastation of going to war against Napoleon, which stood in contrast to the fates suffered by Austria and Germany.
Princess Therese belonged to the House of Saxe-Hildburghausen, which ended along with the fall of the German Empire in 1806. The union of the crown prince and the princess of the fallen duchy, had somehow, preserved the German territories as Bavarian-German, instead of being included among the German-French conquests.
The End of a Fairy Tale Wedding
King Ludwig’s and Queen Therese’s wedding was said to be a happy union that brought forth eight children. However, it was not exactly the fairy tale wedding that the Bavarians had thought it to be, because the couple did not live happily ever after as expected.
King Ludwig I was involved in extra-marital affairs during his reign, and his relationship with a professional dancer by the name of Lola Montez, proved to be his downfall. Lola Montez, became the king’s official mistress and was given not only a royal stipend but a title as well, initially as Baroness Rosenthal and later Countess of Landsfield.
Through all these, Queen Therese was known to have looked the other way and suffered in silence. She immersed herself in the affairs of the state and thus became well-loved by the populace. The king’s impudent behavior and shabby treatment of a marriage much revered and commemorated by the Bavarian people, earned the ire of the church and the citizenry. Amidst a spate of riots in 1848, King Ludwig I was forced to abdicate his throne.
The wedding may have ended but not the annual festivities to commemorate a time in history, when their kingdom was kept safe and free by then King Maximilian I. The field outside the city gates where the annual celebrations are being held was named Theresienwiese or Therese’s fields.
Horse Racing in Germany
The original Oktoberfest is also a celebration of Germany’s horse trotting and racing traditions, which were among the favorites of the German nobility. The week-long wedding festivity had culminated with a horse racing event, in which the royal family was in attendance. Actually, the general consensus of holding the same kind of celebration annually, stemmed mainly from the Bavarian’s enthusiasm over horse racing or “pferderennen” events.
The following years of celebration were larger and had become elaborate in which agricultural exhibits became an attraction. By 1818, carousels and different kinds of competitions like tree-climbing contests, barrel-rolling races and goose chases became additional attractions. Gradually, the advent of mechanical rides, particularly the first roller-coaster in Germany made the annual celebration more fun-filled and exciting.
It is unclear why the horse racing event was discontinued as part of the Oktoberfest ceremonies in 1960 . As the years passed, however, Theresienwiese’s fairs and agricultural exhibits expanded, which didn't leave much room for a race course. Beer drinking was finally allowed inside the fairgrounds; hence the field came to include makeshift beer stands and beer tents. In 1896, the beer manufacturing companies that had been sponsoring the tents eventually added beer halls, since annual beer sales increased every year. It was important that the growing numbers of visitors that trekked to Munich to join the annual event were afforded with proper venues.
But still, Germany’s “pferderennen” flourished --- for which the country also gained popularity by being home to some of the finest horse racing racetracks and events in Europe. The country is also well-known for the German Trotter horse, a breed that is mainly trained for jockey racing, and often preferred by most horse riders from among other trotter breeds.
The horse racing event was discontinued but Oktoberfest went on to gain popularity as “das Bierfest” or "the beer festival.”
Germany and Its Beer-Brewing Industry
Beer-drinking is very much a part of German culture because beer brewing is one of the country’s leading industries. It originated from the ale produced by the early 8th century “hausfraus” or housewives belonging to different clans. Three centuries later, there came the brewery monks and nuns who made some of the best-tasting ales. The ales became quite popular and lucrative so that the feudal lords and merchants deemed it fit to takeover the monasteries’ breweries.
During a span of three-thousand years, the ale evolved into several different types of beer. The” lager” was the most popular variety while the “pilsen” was the last to be added during the most recent 30 years. The beer-brewing business also became a bone of contention among the German monks, the merchants and the feudal lords.
However, as beer production continued, ordinances were issued to ensure the quality of beer that was being produced. During the Age of Reason in the 18th century, scientific intellectual knowledge finally became acceptable. The advent of the invention of devices, and the development of scientific methodologies to enhance the beer quality, made German beers even more popular.
As the annual Oktoberfest took place each year, there came a time that the “Oktoberfestbier”, called “Marzen”, was the only type of beer allowed to be served on Munich’s festival grounds. The said beer is being produced by breweries located within the city limits of Munich; hence, they were the only breweries allowed to participate in Munich’s beer festival.
Today, however, the Oktoberfestbier has been replaced by a much lighter Bavarian lager called “Helles.” Only six of the Munich breweries are allowed to serve the beer at the festival beer tents and beer gardens, which costs about eight euros per one-liter mug.
Traditional German Food
Delving into Germany’s culture wouldn’t be complete without looking into the authentic German traditional foods. The original Oktoberfest spit-roasted chicken called “Hendl” is still included among the crowd favorites along with other spit-roast variations like duck or goose and roasted pork meat.
The Bavarian “Weißwürste, the white veal sausages steamed to perfection and served with sauerkraut, sweet mustard and pretzels, are still included as part of the traditional Oktoberfest menu.
Vegetarian visitors are provided with traditional German food choices like the “Blaukohl” (a dish made from red cabbage and apple), potato salads or potato soup served with large pretzels and a plateful of cheese and bread. Desserts and snacks also abound, which are peddled around the festival grounds. These include the traditional apple strudel, sugared pancakes, honey dumplings and a variety of glazed nuts and fruits.
Present Day Celebrations
Technically, the modern-day Oktoberfest is actually being held during the month of September, exactly two weeks before the first Sunday of October.
Thus, the five-day period of festivities has extended to a 16-day event and was moved back to September. The weather is said to be more reliable and slightly warmer during this month. Obviously, Munich’s traditional beer festival has been a largely profitable tourist attraction. This inspired all other beer-manufacturing countries, states and cities throughout the globe to hold their own celebrations simultaneously.
The only difference, however, is that most of the revelers are participating to take advantage of the large discounts in the prices of their local beer, and not necessarily to commemorate the essence of Oktoberfest history.