“Lederhosen und Dirndl erwünscht!“, reads the big sign in my son’s kindergarten. It is a mild but grey autumn morning and the children are celebrating “Wiesn Breakfast”, one of those many strange offshoots of Oktoberfest which testifies to its local appeal and international success. Little blond and dark-haired children of German, Russian, Turkish or Balkan origin all dressed up in Bavarian folk dresses and leather shorts eating heart-shaped gingerbread with gaudy sugar coating. This is Munich 2013, after another weekend that has seen 1,000,000 visitors and 1,000,000 beer mugs sold on Theresienwiese – the real Wiesn, that is.
Bavaria is no stranger to folk festivals. In fact, some variety of it, whether it be the church anniversary, parish fair or the annual meeting of the local marksmen’s club is present in all but the smallest villages. Most of these events take place in autumn, traditionally the harvest season, when the brewers need an excuse to empty their kegs of last year’s production and make place for new beer. Oktoberfest is special because, in its 200-year history, it has muted from sporty wedding festivities to the largest folk festival on Earth. With beer at its core. Its number one attraction. After all, an alcohol-free Oktoberfest seems barely plausible.
The year is 1810. Europe is in turmoil. The French Empire has reached it peak, Russia is battling Persia, Spain is occupied by Napoleon. Only three years earlier, the relatively small principality of Bavaria had become a kingdom in its own right. And against the backdrop of a restless international stage, on October 12, 1810, in Munich, its Crown Prince Ludwig marries Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Among his subjects, an ambitious banker and cavalry major, Andreas Michael Dall’Armi, who well knows His Royal Highness’s taste for ancient Greece and Olympia-style contests. The wedding celebrations last for five whole days. On the last one, October 17, 1810, Dall’Armi throws his monarch a party that Munich had never seen before. He organizes a horse race on a field then still outside city limits. Immediately, the field is named in honour of the Prince’s bride and becomes Theresienwiese. It is the birthday of today’s world-famous Wiesn. Ludwig and the citizens are delighted. He suggests repeating the celebration the subsequent year, a suggestion accepted with some enthusiasm at the time. And so the tradition begins. And no, there is no hint of beer.
In 1812, France attacks Russia, and by 1813 Bavaria is too involved in the Napoleonic Wars to feel much like celebrating, so that autumn the Oktoberfest is cancelled altogether. It carries on, however, the following years and it keeps getting bigger. Jungle gyms, bowling alleys and swings are added to the horse race track. 1818 sees the inauguration of the first merry-go-round. The city’s poor inhabitants get drawn into the festivities – but not by beer. Lot booths and raffles offering prizes in china and silver are the real attraction. In 1819 Oktoberfest becomes a fixture and its organisation is taken over by the Munich City Fathers. In 1824, in recognition of his extraordinary contribution, Dall’Armi, now 59, receives the very first Gold Medal for Civic Merit issued by the City of Munich. And all of this, without any (yet) drop of beer for the public.
But times are changing. Despite being now guarded by a gigantic bronze statue (the Bavaria, erected in 1850), the festival has some inauspicious years. In 1854 and 1873 it is the cholera epidemic, in 1866 and 1870 war that dampens the mood. The frigid October weather doesn’t really help either. Gradually, the festival advances into the last weeks of September, known for milder temperatures. In 1880, Prince George of Bavaria, the favourite grandson of the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, is born in Munich. In the same year, Carl von Thieme establishes the Munich Reinsurance Company, or Munich RE, later made famous by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. And lo and behold, that autumn at the Oktoberfest, the Munich city administration allows the sale of bier for the first time! By next year, beer shacks and barracks have turned into enormous beer halls and electric light illuminates over 400 booths and tents. Sobriety is defeated and inebriation becomes the rule.
Fast forward to 2013. Theresienwiese is now a 42-hectar paved estate in the heart of Munich. The city has grown and engulfed it. There is no more horse racing, but if you want to make your heart race, there are plenty of roller coasters that will do that. 6 million visitors spend about 1 billion Euros in Munich each year for the Oktoberfest. 1800 toilets take care of the 60.000 hectolitres of beer imbibed. And in kindergartens around Munich, blond and dark-haired Germans and immigrants alike nibble on heart-shaped gingerbread with gaudy sugar coating, prancing around in Bavarian leather shorts and pastel folk dresses.