An illustrated history of Munich’s Oktoberfest

Maya Lekach

It’s time for Germany’s annual Oktoberfest in Bavarian Munich! Although the festival traditionally starts in the final weeks of September (it gets pretty cold in Germany as fall fades into winter), the name remains. And so does the beer-drinking, sausage-eating, general carousing at the biggest fun-festival in the world!

Every year, since 1952, the festival has been holding a design competition to find the year’s official festival design. These designs end up on the official event posters as well as souvenir beer mugs.

In order to celebrate this annual milestone, we’ve decided to teach you about the history of the event, as illustrated by these winning poster designs from the last 60+ years. You’ll learn about Oktoberfest, Munich and Bavaria, and all the great design that the festival has helped to promote in its more recent history.

Munich’s monk beginning
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monk

Oktoberfest is a distinctly Münchner – or “from Munich” – festival. Munich is one of the oldest towns in Germany. Around the 1100s, the town was founded by monks and named after the old High German term Munichen, meaning “by the monks”.

The royal wedding
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royalty

Although the city has been around for a great long while, Oktoberfest celebrated it’s first year in 1810. It was not celebration of beer and Bavaria, but rather the nuptials of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. To honor their marriage, their citizens were all invited to celebrate on the fields of the palace.

The annual party went on to be named after the bride, Therese. The festival is still held on Theresenwiese (weise meaning meadow, or field, in German) to this day, although the locals simply call it “Wiesn”.

Horse races
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horses

For the inaugural Oktoberfest, a horse race in the presence of the entire royal family was the central activity of the event. It was this race – not the beer that the festival has become known for – that was the initial tradition that was repeated yearly as a celebration of Bavarian heritage in Munich.

The horse races were cancelled in 1960, although their spirit still remains in the festival’s imagery and spirit, as seen in the poster above.

Beer über alles
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beer

Around 1818, the festival began to be centered significantly more around beer. It was at this time that the regulations, or rheinheitsangebot, surrounding the beer in the festival were put into place.

Beers in the festival must be:

  • brewed in the city limits of Munich
  • a minimum of 6% alcohol by volume

Often these beers were brewed in March and fermented until their time to shine in late September. Around 1892, the beer began to be served in glass or porcelain mugs, often called a Maß (pronounced “mass”, for their large size).

Traditions
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tradition

Another tradition that dates back to the early Ludwig/Therese days of the festival is the march of the local people through the town to the Wiesn to signal the start of the festival – not to mention showing off their regional garb, called Tracht.

The traditional clothing for women is a dirndl. While it used to be a typical Alpine peasant outfit, it has now become a rather chic and expensive fashion option (especially considering how it can emphasize certain female assets). The dress consists of a blouse and an apron.

It is also traditional that the placement of the knot on the apron denotes the relationship status of the woman wearing it. The knot tied on the left indicates that the woman is single. A knot on the right indicates that the woman is taken in one way or another. A knot in the front and center indicates the woman is a virgin and a knot in the back center indicates the woman is a widow.

The traditional garb for men are pants called lederhosen (literally “leather pants” when translated from the German). These pants were traditionally work or leisure clothes for Bavarian men and have only recently come to be considered traditional garb. They are often associated with virility and brawn.

The festival these days consists of all of these traditions, as well as a couple of new ones. The festival now begins with the current mayor of Munich tapping the keg and saying “O’ zapft is!” (“it is tapped!”) in old high German.

The carnival
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carnival

In 1816, the festival added carnival booths. These booths eventually turned into the giant beer tents and halls that the festival is now so famous for.

In 1880, these attractions were lit by electric light, a new-fangled idea at the time. These lights were, at the time, as much an attraction as the beer itself. The festival is now a full-fledged carnival, complete with lights, roller coasters, ferris wheels and the like. These attractions provide fun for all (especially the little ones who are not yet ready to order) or drinks like a full Maß of beer.

Culinary delights
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food

Important to remember is that Oktoberfest is not entirely about beer. While Bavarians do like the drink these malt-y beverages, they must also fill their stomachs with traditionally Bavarian food. Some of these items are pictured above, such as Brezeln (pretzels), Hendl (roasted chicken), radishes, a variety of Würste (sausages), and so much more. Our mouths are watering just thinking about it.

Music
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music

Oktoberfest aims to be friendly to patrons of all ages. While maintaining a consistent level of German-ness in the sounds performed at the festival, in order to appease older guests, quieter, traditional wind music will be played until 6pm, and the party really starts after that with schlager (German folk pop) music played into the evening hours.

Vices at the festival
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smoking

Smoking has had an interesting bit of history at the festival. While its no secret that Europeans are fond of tobacco, recent smoking laws in Europe have made it hard for smoking to continue in tents. This was originally a hard ban to keep – the first year the smoking was banned, people complained of how without the smell of tobacco smoke, you could smell the stench of spilled beer!

While organizers have since come up with other methods of masking the smell, smoking is now allowed in only certain areas of the fairgrounds – however we hear the regulation is lax. Smells of beer or smoke, take your pick!

Bierleichen is a German word for ‘beer corpses’, which is a more humorous phrase for those who drink more than their share of beers and end up passed out around the lawn, looking a lot like a corpse. So always remember at Oktoberfest to only drink what you can handle. And if you’re feeling ill, just hop on over and grab some of the delicious German food.

Conclusion
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We’ll leave you with this, the winning 2016 Oktoberfest poster:

2016 oktoberfest poster

And don’t forget to say Prost!

Check out the full Oktoberfest poster collection here!

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