Oktoberfest – German Halloween?
You should have heard the outrage in the “Talk of the Town” sections of domestic newspapers when Halloween began making its way into the annual party lineup in Germany: The celebration is an idea inspired purely by cagey businessmen who want to cash in on Carnival-style sales twice a year! Or: Halloween has no tradition in Germany and is needless competition for the already established and amicable lantern processions of St. Martin's Day. And: Most young people just end up running riot and vandalizing things during their silly Halloween escapades. Unfortunately there is a degree of truth in all of these accusations, but they don't tell the whole story.
Oktoberfest goes global
It is not as if Germany only finds inspiration in foreign cultures. Other countries also take a few pages out of Germany's book of debauchery. While Halloween was making its triumphal march around the world, the Oktoberfest was leading its own campaign around the globe – and it was a successful one. There are now over 3,000 Oktoberfests around the planet, all based on the Munich model. Some of them even attract up to 1 million visitors a year! Since 1983, Oktoberfest has been celebrated in Blumenau, Brazil, where there is admittedly a large German minority population. In Canada's Kitchener-Waterloo, a town where the ancestors of German immigrants are plentiful and the local mascot is called “Uncle Hans”, they have been welcoming visitors to the “Wiesn” since 1969. Quingdao in China celebrates its Oktoberfest in grandiose fashion early – in August – and has a brief historic period during which it was a German colony. But even in places where the connection to Germany is not quite as clear, there are still Oktoberfests: in the village of Jundah in the Australian Outback, for example, with its 68 inhabitants. Moscow and other Russian cities have even organized their own Munich-style celebrations – some of them arranged by “cagey” executives from Munich's breweries. Unlike the Munich model, however, these foreign Oktoberfests are not held on grand fairgrounds but in local bars and restaurants that have tailored their operations for German beer and tavern sociability.
Folklore of ghosts and goblins and wedding celebration
As a result of the hordes of non-German visitors to the various O'fests in Munich and around the world, there is really no other conclusion to be made here other than that the Oktoberfest – like Halloween – hits some sort of intercultural sweet spot. It serves some sort of universal need that is inherent to the human condition, with all of its emotion and passion. While the folklore of Halloween's ghosts and goblins clearly deals with death and the supernatural – which may suit the Harry Potter generation but ekes out an otherwise shadowy existence in our secular society, which perhaps explains its compensatory function – the Oktoberfest's modus operandi is in fact a bit less clear.
It was initially the wedding celebration for Ludwig I of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxon-Hildburghausen, in 1810, but since then the necklines of the traditional dirndls have continued to drop and thoughts of the “holy sacrament” of marriage have taken a back seat. Even the first few years after the royal wedding were dominated by horse races, which were themselves distant relatives of medieval knights' events, but nowadays most of the contenders are not brought down by the lances of other noblemen. Instead, it is the rambunctious consumption of alcohol that knocks them off their proverbial steeds.
The festival tent – a global village
At this point, it is likely that the Oktoberfest serves yet another innate desire in humans. Its authentic atmosphere, colossal beers, hearty fare, awe-inspiring festival tents that feel like small villages, and, last but not least, the increasingly popular, Halloween-like dress-up element with the traditional Bavarian garb of dirndls for women and lederhosen for men all serve to convey the festival's rural character. In a time of advancing urbanization and industrialization in agriculture, in which fewer and fewer people have a real connection to our food supply, the Oktoberfest has become an increasingly popular yearly event that serves to reconnect people with the rural traditions of our hectic world.
In that way, the Oktoberfest has taken over a position in the festival calendar that was previously occupied by the old-fashioned and almost forgotten harvest festival. And though we don't necessarily think about being thankful for the fruits and vegetables at the supermarket when we are at the Oktoberfest, everyone present at the festival will be painfully aware of the fruits of his/her labor when he/she sees the prices being charged for their amusement. The most drastic juxtaposition in this context would be at the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest where the traditional zenith of the Thanksgiving parade is the appearance of the mascot, “Uncle Hans”.
When looking at the various festivals on the annual calendar, it becomes clear that not many of them have the trappings to become popular on a global, intercultural basis. The Oktoberfest is thus an expression of a global consciousness that transcends cultural barriers, indeed, a contribution of the highest order to our world's treasure trove of cultural heritage.
is a freelance author in Hamburg.
Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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