Digging Oktoberfest History, Tradition, Fun Facts to Embrace Bavarian Traditions

Munich Oktoberfest is the world's largest Beerfest and is listed second among the top ten celebrations, following Rio Carnival in Brazil. The festival has been around since 1810, and the locals call it “Wiesn.” The Beerfest is so big in terms of the annual number of guests it attracts. 5-7 million people join the “Theresienwiese” yearly to celebrate Beer, Bavarian traditions, and local culinary delights. The festival's popularity can be weighed by the fact that it is celebrated in almost every nook of the world, from the U.S.A. to Brazil. Wiesn has a long-standing history, with some traditions and astonishing facts. 

The Oktoberfest History

Oktoberfest has two hundred-plus years of history with many transformations in all these decades.

The First Iteration of Wiesn

In 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) wedded Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 12. The people of Munich were invited to celebrate the royal union on the fields outside the city gates. These meadows were named "Theresienwiese" ("Theresa's Meadow") in honor of the Princess Therese. Over time, locals started calling it simply "Wiesn." 

Highlights from First Oktoberfest

  • The fairground chosen for Oktoberfest, initially outside the city, was ideal due to its natural features, which remain suitable today. 
  • Sendlinger Hill (now Theresienhohe) was a grand venue for 40,000 spectators. Apart from the king's tent, the festival grounds were undeveloped. 
  • The festivities included horse races on October 18, inspired by the 15th-century Scharlachrennen ("Scarlet Race at Karlstor"). The races, featuring 30 horses on a 3,400-meter racetrack, concluded with a student choir singing. 
  • Before the races, a performance honored the groom and the royal family. It included children dressed in Wittelsbach costumes and costumes from Bavarian townships. 

Historical Developments in the 19th Century

  • 1811: A special event featuring Bavarian agriculture was introduced. 
  • Besides horse races, the festival soon expanded to include various attractions like tree climbing, bowling alleys, and swings. 
  • 1818: Carnival booths were introduced, offering prizes made of silver, porcelain, and jewelry. 
  • 1819: The city authorities took over the festival's management, making it an annual tradition. 
  • 1832: The festival date was moved a week later to accommodate a visiting Greek delegation, who later drew inspiration for the modern Olympic Games. 
  • 1850: The costume parade became an essential part of the Oktoberfest, with thousands of people dressed in traditional Bavarian attire marching from Maximilian Street to the festival grounds, led by the Münchner Kindl.
  • 1850:  Initially sketched by Leo von Klenze, the Bavaria statue stood watch over the Oktoberfest grounds. Johann Baptist Stiglmaier and Ferdinand von Miller constructed the statue.
  • 1853: The Bavarian Ruhmeshalle was also completed, adding to the festivity's ambiance.
  • 1872: Over time, the Oktoberfest was extended, and its date shifted to take advantage of the warmer weather towards the end of September.
  • 1880: The festival continued evolving, with the tents introducing electric lighting.
  • 1881: Booths selling Bratwurst opened 
  • 1892: The sale of beer in glass mugs started.
  • End of the 19th century: The fairground underwent reorganization, transforming booths into larger beer halls to accommodate more guests and musicians. 
  • 1887: the first parade featuring Oktoberfest staff and breweries took place, marking the official beginning of the Oktoberfest celebration each year.

Highlights in 20th Century Developments

  • 1910: The hundred-year celebration of Oktoberfest marked a significant milestone with an estimated consumption of 120,000 liters of beer. 
  • I913: the Bräurosl pavilion was established, with the title of the largest tent constructed at the time, with a capacity to accommodate around 12,000 guests.
  • 1919 & 1920: Oktoberfest witnessed the introduction of the "Kleiner Herbstfest" or "smaller autumn celebration.
  • 1935: the 125th anniversary of Oktoberfest was celebrated amidst grandeur, featuring a notable parade. The slogan "proud city—cheerful country" was chanted.
  • 1938: Following the annexation of Austria by Hitler and the acquisition of the Sudetenland (northern, southern, and western areas of former Czechoslovakia) through the Munich Agreement, Wiesn was renamed the "Greater “German folk festival” or "Großdeutsches Volksfest."
  • 1950: The festival introduced the traditional opening ceremony with a 12-gun shot followed by the tapping of the inaugural Oktoberfest beer barrel keg by the Mayor of Munich.
  • 1960: Until 1960, the horse races continued with an agricultural show. The show still takes place every four years at the southern part of the festival grounds
  • 1970: local German gay organizations organized "Gay Days" at Oktoberfest, typically commencing in the Bräurosl tent on the first Sunday of the festival.

Highlights from 21st Century Developments

  • 2005: The "quiet Oktoberfest" concept, followed by traditional brass music until 6:00 pm, was introduced to maintain a family-friendly and elder-friendly atmosphere within the festival tents.
  • 2005: The Mondlift, Germany's last traveling enterprise amusement ride, returned to the Oktoberfest.
  • 2008: A Bavarian law banning smoking in enclosed public spaces was implemented, with an exception made for Oktoberfest due to enforcement challenges.
  • 2010: A referendum in Bavaria reinstated the strict smoking ban of 2008, threatening to withhold beer sales from individuals caught smoking within the tents.
  • 2011: All tents implemented the blanket smoking ban for a trial period to address potential issues.
  • 2010: The 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest was celebrated with various special events. These included a horse race featuring historical costumes on opening day and a designated "historical Oktoberfest" starting a day earlier than usual on the southern part of the festival grounds.
  • 2013: Oktoberfest attracted 6.4 million guests who consumed 6.7 million liters of beer.

Oktoberfest Traditions

Some of the important traditions  that count as integral pillars of Oktoberfest are:

Oktoberfest Landlord and Breweries

The tradition of Oktoberfest Landlord and Breweries traces back to 1887. That year, the manager “Hans Steyrer,” initiated the grand spectacle with a procession from his meadow to the Theresienwiese grounds in Munich. Followed by his staff, a lively brass band, and a hearty supply of beer, Steyrer began what became a beloved tradition at Wiesn.

1935, a significant milestone was achieved when all the major breweries participated in the festival's opening parade. This procession, a highlight of the festivities, has continued to captivate attendees ever since. At its forefront, the Münchner Kindl, depicting the essence of the city of Munich, leads the march. Following closely behind, the current mayor of Munich rides in the distinguished Schottenhammel family carriage, a tradition established in 1950.

The parade is a vibrant display of Bavarian culture and tradition. Elaborately adorned horse-drawn carriages and floats representing the breweries are joined by those of other restaurateurs and entertainers. The musical bands from the various beer tents provide a lively soundtrack, enhancing the festive atmosphere of the procession.

Keg Tapping Ceremony

Oktoberfest's official commencement is at noon, following a lively parade of restaurateurs marching by carriage from downtown to the festival grounds. It begins with the prestigious lord mayor ceremoniously tapping the first beer barrel within the Schottenhammel tent, accompanied by the traditional Bavarian exclamation, "O'zapft is!" (meaning "It has been tapped!").

The twelve resounding gunshots echo from the stairway of Ruhmeshalle, signaling the commencement of beer service across all the large and small beer tents. The Bavarian Minister-President is honored with the first liter of beer. The inaugural barrels are tapped in other tents, and the locally brewed beer is poured for the guests.

A highlight of anticipation for guests each year is witnessing how many blows the mayor successfully taps the first beer barrel keg. Christian Ude holds an impressive record of achieving the feat in just two strokes on multiple occasions between 2005 and 2013, as well as Dieter Reiter's consistent two-stroke success from 2015 to 2019. The Thomas Wimmer's, in 1950, required 19 strokes to keg the barrel.

Costume and Riflemen's Parade

In 1835, the inaugural traditional costume parade was held to honor the silver wedding anniversary of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese. In 1895, Maximilian Schmidt, a Bavarian novelist, orchestrated another parade featuring 1,400 participants divided into 150 traditional costume groups. In 1910, for the event's centenary, organized by Julius and Moritz Wallach, esteemed German Dirndl and men Lederhosen attire advocates.

Since its revival in 1950, with a break until 2019 and a resumption in 2022, this parade has been an annual spectacle. It has become an important show at the Oktoberfest and one of the world's foremost gatherings. Each year, on the festival's first Sunday, approximately 8,000 individuals dress in their traditional German garb and start on a seven-kilometer procession from the Maximilianeum to the festival grounds.

The procession is signaled by the iconic figure of the Münchner Kindl, followed by dignitaries from the city council, city administration, and the state of Bavaria—often including the minister-president and spouse. Traditional costume and rifle clubs, musical and marching bands, flag-wavers, and around 40 elaborately adorned horse-drawn carriages contribute to the parade's splendor. While most participants are from Bavaria, contingents also join in from other German regions, such as Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy, and various European nations. The participation of Wiesnwirte (innkeepers) and the traditional costume and marksmen procession is coordinated by the Festring München.

Munich Brewed Beer

At Wiesn, the beer brewed within Munich's city limits following the Beer Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) can be served at the Munich Oktoberfest. Beers that fulfill these standards are labeled as Oktoberfest Beer. "Oktoberfest Beer" is a registered trademark owned by the Club of Munich Brewers and has two distinct variations: the traditional Märzen lager and a lighter Festbier. Only six breweries, known as “BIG SIX,” are authorized to produce Oktoberfest beer, which includes:

  • Augustiner-Bräu
  • Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu
  • Löwenbräu
  • Paulaner
  • Spatenbräu
  • Staatliches Hofbräu-München

Interesting Facts about Oktoberfest 

Some of the Interesting facts related to the Oktoberfest are as follows:

Largest Beerfestival Globally

Oktoberfest is the world's largest folk festival. In 1999, around 6.5 million people visited the 42-hectare venue at Theresienwiese. Among these visitors, approximately 72% were locals. 15% traveled from other countries, including neighboring European Union nations and non-European countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and East Asia.

Oktoberfest Cancellation 

Throughout its 213-year history, Oktoberfest was canceled for multiple reasons. In 1813, the Napoleonic War led to the festival cancellation. The Weisn festivities were halted in 1854 due to the cholera outbreak. The Beerfest was canceled in 1866 because of the Austro-Prussian War, also known as the Seven Weeks War. The Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s resulted in the cancellation of Beerfest.

Cholera struck again in Germany in 1872, resulting in the cancellation of Oktoberfest. World War I led to the suspension of the Beerfest from 1914 to 1918. Following the war, Volksfest iterations in 1919 and 1920 were replaced by the “Kleineres Herbstfest,” or “Autumn Festival.” The economic challenges of Germany's hyperinflation in 1923 and 1924 led to the festival's cancellation during those years. 

The outbreak of World War II from 1939 to 1945 caused the cancellation of Weisn. From 1946 to 1948, the Autumn Festival once again replaced the Beerfest. Recently, the global Covid-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of Oktoberfest from 2019 to 2021. 

Oide Wiesn (Old Wiesn)

2010 Oktoberfest marked a significant milestone. It commemorated its anniversary on the completion of two hundred years. To honor this occasion, the organizers introduced “the Historisches Oktoberfest” or “Historical Oktoberfest." The event featured a horse race and two specially designed tents that depicted the festival's early iterations of Wiesn. The "Old Wiesn" success led to its permanency in the Beerfest venue. It is separate from the main Wiesn, and entry to the Old Wiesn requires no fee, yet both venues work on the same operating SOPs. Securing reservations for the 3.5-hectare venue is comparatively easier than the other tent booking process.

Rosa Wiesn

The Rosa Wiesn, also known as “Gay Oktoberfest,” has various LGBT gatherings during the Oktoberfest festivities in Munich. The main event occurs at the Bräurosl (Hacker-Pschorr) tent on the first Sunday, often called 'Gay Sunday.' Many other activities are planned across the festival. Some of the events need prior reservations. These include meet and greets, brunches, Lion's Night (Löwennacht), and cultural programs.

The Rosa Wiesn started in the 1970s when members of the Munich Lion's Club, MLC (Münchner Löwen Club), a leather and fetish society, secured the balcony at the Bräurosl festival tent. Initially mistaken for a football club, they were warmly received by the tent's proprietors and staff, thus establishing an annual tradition. Rosa Wiesn has become a prominent gathering on Germany's LGBT calendar, drawing over 8,000 LGBT visitors to Gay Sunday alone. It ranks as the second-largest LGBT gathering, following Christopher Street Day.

Wrap Up!

Oktoberfest is one of the biggest festivals for a reason. It is popular because of its long-standing history and traditions. The Parades, keg tapping ceremony, and the Oktoberfest Beer all make the Wiesn a happening celebration. Despite being canceled many times, the Beer Fest is the largest Volkfest, with Oide Wisen and Rosa Wiesn as fascinating facts.


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