“I think they like your style,” my German cousin Hans-Georg told me one morning as we walked down the streets of Munich with a few of my friends from the States. “Your tee shirt.”
I was wearing a screen-printed lederhosen novelty shirt – basically, the German version of a tuxedo tee. I’d bought it at the Theresienwiese — the festival grounds — not only to get into the spirit of things, but to add to my collection of kitschy attire. I expected to see a lot more people (tourists, specifically) wearing the same thing, but it turned out I was the only one, and all the Münchners were getting a kick out of it. Of course, the local men were wearing the real thing — lederhosen, made of leather — while the women were in traditional dirndls.
But not all of the festival-goers were German. Every autumn, people from around the world converge on the Bavarian city of Munich to partake in one of the world’s most well known festivals – Oktoberfest. Despite its name, most of this 16-day celebration takes place in September each year (simply because the weather is better) and ends on the first Sunday of October. There are parades, people in traditional costumes, music, dancing, food concessions, and even carnival games and roller coasters. And in case you haven’t heard, there’s also beer — and a lot of it.
In fact, Oktoberfest isn’t just a festival, it’s a celebration so grand that it has its own style of beer. Breweries worldwide create a version for the season, in the traditional Märzen style, which is dark, bitter, and slightly sweet. Serving that brew has been a custom since the festival’s origin, the wedding of Bavarian Prince Ludwig I (he later became king) to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. Since that day, Oktoberfest — or Wiesn as it’s known locally, short for the name of the fairgrounds — has become an annual celebration that’s more about Bavarian tradition than the centuries-old royal marriage.
My cohorts and I attended Oktoberfest during the first weekend, the most traditional time to go during its two-week run. Unlike subsequent weekends — which are known to draw loud, international, rowdy parties (the Italians have a particular reputation) — the inaugural weekend is the one truly embraced by locals.
On the morning of the first Saturday, teams from the six most prominent breweries of Munich parade down the main promenade of the Theresienwiese to their respective festhalles, or beer tents, complete with horses, marching brass, and wagons full of kegs. At high noon, the Mayor of Munich ceremoniously taps the first keg. Cannons fire and their giant boom officially begins the festival. Barmaids begin immediately serving tens of thousands of beer-drinking revelers in dozens of beer tents, and throughout the afternoon — and the subsequent 15 days — things get a little sloppy.
But it’s all in good fun. My friends, cousin, and I raised our steins in the air, along with the strangers-turned-new friends around us. Alcohol, as they say, is the best social lubricant, after all. “Prost!” we cheered as we looked each other in the eyes then tapped our steins on the table before drinking to protect us from seven years of bad sex — a common safeguard against superstition. Oompah bands played polka tunes to sway our steins with. Waiters brought over big pretzel and bratwurst platters to fill our stomachs, which yearned for food. Music switched to German sing-along standards, like polka-renditions of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” and Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby.” People started dancing on tables.
I don’t really remember the rest; it gets fuzzy.
However, this was still Germany, a country rightly known for punctuality and efficiency, and the party ended abruptly at 10:30 in the evening, when the tents were cleared out to be cleaned. People groaned, but it was for a good cause: starting all over again the next morning at 10:00, at which time my friends got in the spirit with their own novelty lederhosen shirts. Everyone agreed it was appropriate attire. Because at Oktoberfest – the ultimate expression of celebratory imbibing in Bavaria – you might as well dress to pay homage to tradition, even if it’s printed on a shirt. Take it from me, the Germans will be happy to toast you for it.