Oktoberfest: What are We Celebrating?


Eva Epley

Tuba Force played the Dovetail’s Secret Stage at Oktoberfest on Saturday Oct. 8.

Fall brings many traditions: the leaves change, school ramps up, and a blizzard of pumpkin-flavored promotions clamor for our attention. Not too far behind them comes Oktoberfest, a now international tradition stretching back centuries.

“This is a 200+ year old event that has only been canceled a handful of times,” said Samantha Turner Lundeen, Director of Marketing & Events at the DANK Haus German American Cultural Center. “It is a time when everyone can gather and enjoy their time together, despite what else may be going on in the world.”

Characterized by a gathering of copious friends, food, and drink, Oktoberfest was born in 1810 as a celebration of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria marrying Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. In the centuries since, the celebration has grown to become the largest folk festival in the world, and a cherished international tradition, without losing the original character that made it so popular. 

“When you watch videos from Oktoberfest, it’s ridiculous,” said Bavarian intern at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center Sarah Hertrich. “How people behave, it’s so funny. I think tourists came to Oktoberfest, had such a good time, then just spread the word.”

Indulging in food and drink is one of the easiest sells out there, as evidenced by our own city’s observance of Oktoberfest. While Germany’s Oktoberfest runs for two weeks — ending on the first Sunday in October — one could find an Oktoberfest celebration somewhere in the Windy City every weekend since Sept. 10. Chicago’s DANK Haus German American Cultural Center has its Oktoberfest celebration on Saturday, Oct. 21.

“It’s a time to celebrate, relax, and enjoy the end of summer,” Turner-Lundeen said. “It’s also a great opportunity to share Germany and Bavarian folk culture with the world.”

Even though Oktoberfest has been embraced by much of Europe and the Western world, the history of the event has become muddled. Notably, Oktoberfest is not a broadly “German” tradition.

Originating from Bavaria, a region that comprises most of southeastern Germany, the largest celebration of Oktoberfest every year is held in Munich. As the fervor surrounding the event spread, the true origins of the event became cloudy.

“Because that idea of eating and drinking to your heart’s content is so popular, it’s been easy to export Oktoberfest around the world,” said German program director and senior professional lecturer Eugene Sampson. “However, as a result, many people who are not from Germany or from Europe believe that Oktoberfest is like that for all of Germany.”

While Oktoberfest is meant to be a joyful annual event, appropriating other cultures’ celebrations without fully appreciating its origins can dilute the meaning of the celebration. Even if not in an overtly offensive manner, misunderstandings lead to inaccurate caricatures. 

“When I go to other countries, they think everyone in Germany is wearing lederhosen, which is definitely not true,” Hertrich said. “It’s mainly in the Bavarian area. I’m not even sure why they mix that up. Maybe it’s just because it’s part of the wider stereotype of Germans.

Since the nuptials of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese, Oktoberfest has been held every year there was no famine, disease, or international crises. Over six million people flock to Munich annually, hoping to match the original joy it was celebrated with. Tradition has survived, as the same six Munich breweries provide the beer, and thousands dress in dirndls and lederhosen.  

If nothing else, the spirit of Oktoberfest has remained alive, even centuries later.

“I think that if the original intent was to celebrate a particular marriage, then that has been lost,” Sampson said. “But if the intent was to reward people simply for being alive, then it hasn’t.”

As it winds down in the U.S., respecting the history of an event we have come to appreciate so much — and the culture it originates in — rounds out the start of another autumn season.

“Oktoberfest has become one of the most widely recognized German cultural icons, but there is so much more to Germany than Oktoberfest,” Turner-Lundeen said. “I would encourage anyone who is experiencing German culture for the first time through an Oktoberfest celebration to stay curious and explore what else Germany has to offer.”