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Holiday history: Oktoberfest

Len Duena/The Cougar

As part of their Cultural Series, UH Dining Services hosted an event to celebrate Oktoberfest at Moody Towers Dining Hall. 

Millions of Americans celebrate Oktoberfest each year during Sept. and October by attending festivals, polka dancing and drinking beer. However, many might not be aware that this tradition stems all the way from a German state called Bavaria.

Oct.12, 1810 — The first Oktoberfest was held to honor a royal wedding.

The elites and townspeople of Bavaria congregated in Munich — then the capital of the Kingdom of Bavaria — to celebrate the wedding of the crown prince Ludwig I and his bride Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, which is now part of the German state, Thuringia.

The matrimonial festivals lasted five days. The townsquares were lavishly illuminated with lights and adorned with paintings, which the wealthy bid on. Among the wealthy were the national guards, including Italian banker Andreas von Dall’Armi. 

In fact, several sources credit Dall’Armi for inventing Oktoberfest. He’s mainly known for the horse race spectacle — the hallmark of the festivities — and the City of Munich even awarded him for this contribution in 1824. 

Despite this, he horse race was actually the idea of a coachman named Franz Baumgartner. He brought it to Dall’Armi, who then proposed it to King Maximilian I. Joseph — Prince Ludwig’s father, according to the Oktoberfest Guide Magazine

German lecturer of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages Tanja Reifenrath said that the legend of Dall’Armi creating the race might have been created to instill patriotic pride in Bavarians.

“I assume that someone had this idea of the horse race,” Reifenrath said. “And it just exploded. Munich, being the capital of Bavaria, country at the time, wanted to have something to celebrate themselves.” 

Once King Joseph approved of the horse race, the equine extravaganza took 12 days to organize. On the last day of festivity, the townspeople gathered beneath Sendling Hill to watch the show, which took place on the fields in front of the city gates, which were later renamed Theresienwiese, which means “Theresa’s Fields,” to honor the crown princess.

The locals had such a delightful time that they decided to entertain themselves in cheerful spirits the following year, and the year after and the year after that, spawning the tradition of Oktoberfest. Today, Munich holds the largest Oktoberfest in the world amassing over 6 million annual visitors.

However, Americans don’t need to voyage that far to take part in the jubilee. There are various festival tours, especially in the South. This German celebration spreads to the other side of the globe thanks to a changing world at war.

May 8, 1945 — WWII ends, partying begins

This day is Victory in Europe Day or V.E. Day, and about 1.6 million American soldiers were still on German soil, specifically in Munich, according to Wine Enthusiast. That means they witnessed the Bavarian style of partying, which involved heavy consumption of beer.

During the horse race at the first Oktoberfest in 1810, the townspeople were merry, eating and drinking beer as they watched the show. It was a cultural phenomenon akin to the American tradition of drinking beer while watching football.

Beer Appreciation lecturer of the Department of Global Hospitality Leadership Aaron Corsi, who spent one summer in Bavaria, said the people there would joke about Bavaria being “The Texas of Germany.”

Corsi said that, although Bavarians were brewing beer for Oktoberfest long before the founding of America, thanks to immigration, notably Germans migrating to New Braunfels, Texas, German immigrants partnered with each other to develop popular German beer brands like Budweiser, which are highly consumed by Americans today.

“Beer is ingrained in American culture,” Corsi said. “It’s backyard barbecues, football and baseball. My brewery makes an Oktoberfest every year. We make a traditional style of Märzen. We think it’s important this time of the year to sit down, relax and have some Bratwurst and a nice big liter of Marz.”

Wine Enthusiast also attributes the popularity of Oktoberfest in the U.S. due to German immigration, stating that between 1951 and 1970, around 800,000 Germans immigrated to the U.S., and today there are some 45 million people of German heritage in the country.

Reifenrath, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1990, is one of those 45 million people. She is deeply appreciative of the American enthusiasm surrounding Oktoberfest and German culture. 

“I’m super thankful to the Dining folks for coming up with this idea,” Reifenrath said. “I want all the students to know that Germans are grateful for this exposure. Thank you for being interested in our culture.”

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