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Oktoberfest: 233 Year Wedding Reception

Modeled after that wedding reception 233 years ago, we call it Oktoberfest.

A horse race, a traveling carnival, untold gallons of warm beer and close to 30,000 fine citizens of Munich. It’s how the absurdly wealthy royalty married back in 1810 in Munich, Bavaria. The lucky couple that day on 12 October were Crown Prince Ludwig and his lovely Princess Therese. I can’t vouch for the marriage but it is a fact that the festivities are still going on around the world. Modeled after that wedding reception 233 years ago, we call it Oktoberfest. Whether you participate in the festival in your own town, the one in Cincinnati that draws up to 700,000 every year, or you fly to Munich and rub shoulders (and huge beer mugs) with six million new friends from around the world, one thing is the same: Fun. Fun for the family and anyone else who shows up. 

The locals in Munich were so impressed with their first Oktoberfest that they decided to do it again the following year in 1811. In that year, managers added a show to promote Bavarian agriculture. Agriculture is, after all, what produces all those hops, barley and other cereals to fill the vats that turn out beer. A couple of years later, a little dust-up that your kids may have read about —the Napoleonic Wars — forced the cancellation of Oktoberfest. After this, the festival grew steadily from year to year with new features like bowling alleys, swings, competitive tree climbing and other things that amaze kids and frighten parents. In 1819, the city fathers of Munich took over management and set out to upgrade the event, in part by proclaiming it an annual affair and by introducing more benches to make beer drinking easier and carnival booths with prizes ranging from silver to porcelain and jewelry. 

But all hasn’t been easy for the original — some say “only” — Oktoberfest. In fact, its history includes a myriad of cancellations and adjustments due to a cholera epidemic (1854), the Austro-Prussian War (1866, again in 1870) and another cholera epidemic (1873). But there was light! Literally. In 1880, electric light illuminated more than 400 booths and tents. Booths selling real bratwurst opened and the first beer was sold in glass mugs in 1882. At the 100th anniversary of Oktoberfest in 1910, an estimated 35,000 gallons of beer were consumed. Three years later, the largest pavilion ever built, the Braurosl, was opened to accommodate around 12,000 people. But from 1914 to 1918, the Great War (sometimes referred to as WWI) suspended the festival. The politics of the moment following the Great War allowed the replacement of Oktoberfest with something called Kleineres Herbstfest. That can translate to something like “smaller autumn celebration.” But the penalties of warfare are lasting and in 1923 and 1924, Oktoberfest was canceled as a result of the hyperinflation. World War II, stopped all Oktoberfest festivities. After the war in Europe, from 1946 to 1948, Munich celebrated only “Autumn Fest.” Even the sale of real Oktoberfest beer, much stronger than normal beer, was not permitted. Munich was not under Communist occupation after the war, but just about anyone who lives to rule other people will be sure that no one gets 2% drunker than anyone else.  

Today, your local Oktoberfest may not include horse racing, tree climbing or 16 pairs of cute little kids dressed in costumes marching to the music that seems to be everywhere. All those were big draws in the 1800s, not so much in 2023. You are more likely to find amusement rides, games of chance — if not skill — and more than 2 kinds of sausages. Looking ahead to this year’s Oktoberfest, it is highly unlikely that you and your group will be held up by Prussian soldiers, knocked out by a bout of cholera or trampled by runaway racehorses. But the odds are great that you will eat too much, drink too much, and wear yourself out at the games and rides. If your borough doesn’t have the rides, plan to fly to Munich next year.  

A horse race, a traveling carnival, untold gallons of warm beer and close to 30,000 fine citizens of Munich.