Being German, one can’t avoid the biggest of clichés (if we leave out “Don’t mention the war!”): Lederhosen, beer, pretzel, Oktoberfest. The most German thing of all seems to be to get drunk in a tent, dressed in traditional clothes with huge glasses of beer, maybe dancing on the table. Waitresses in this scenario have bulging muscles, because those huge glasses are heavy, not like a pint in a British pub. They also generally have what the Bavarian language calls “Holz vor der Hütt’n”. Which translates to “huge breasts”, although the typical English visitor on any Oktoberfest prefers terms that are slightly less sophisticated.
All this is already fairly bizarre, yet it misses the icing on the cake: Schuhplattler. If you don’t know what it is, do NOT google it. It is weird. We are, however, adding a little video for you here:
Let’s dig into this stereotype. First off: While Germans generally do like beer, it isn’t served in huge Maß-glasses all over the country. And Dirndl (traditional dress) and Lederhosen are not common in all of Germany.The Oktoberfest is a Bavarian invention, started in Munich in the 18th century by King Ludwig I to keep the capital happy. Horse racing was the main attraction in the beginning, but the event soon turned into a proper yearly Volksfest (a folk festival). It is a celebration of Bavarian culture and features all the accessories of South German folklore. It’s as much a German tradition as the Scottish kilt is typical for the UK.
Volksfest events, on the other hand, are absolutely German. They are an important part of local culture all around the country, usually happen once in a year and attract huge numbers of visitors. The reasons to celebrate vary, the appearance on the other hand is uniform: Stalls offering food and drink, music, fairground attractions like auto scooters, carousels or haunted houses, cotton candy, sweets and shooting galleries (with rigged guns, if you believe those who didn’t hit the targets).
There’s always a reason to party
Many of these fun fairs happen in October, unlike the Oktoberfest in Munich that actually starts in September and ends on October 3rd on the anniversary of German reunification. The Catholic Church made October a month of celebration by giving its traditional “Erntedankfest” a fixed date. This harvest festival follows a similar idea as the American Thanksgiving, with roots reaching back to ancient times of the Roman Empire, where the end of the harvest was the counterpart to the fertility celebrations in spring that today is Easter. The Catholic Erntedankfest is now fixed to the first Sunday in October, right after Michaelmas (the Michaelstag), one of the four dividing days in the church calendar.
There’s no turkey dinner at German Thanksgiving, though. Instead Germans meet on a noisy Volksfest (after mass in church for those that are pious). Sometimes there is a parade through town before the party starts, featuring harvest products and sometimes a harvest queen. In the famous German wine regions this is usually replaced by a “Winzerfest”, where wine-growers vote for their wine queen and, needless to say, replace beer with wine.
If you read our article about German style clubs (Vereine) you might remember the Schützenfest – the Shooter’s Festival. Sport shooting clubs are common in Germany, and and they are the organisers of some of the biggest fun fairs – like the Wolfsburger Schützenfest with 450,000 visitors every year. An even more common reason for a proper Volksfest is Kirchweih (or Kirmes), the church anniversary. While celebrating the local church might be a weird reason to drink, party (and sometimes brawl), it reflects the importance of the church in German communities.
The Düsseldorfer Kirmes with 4.5 million visitors and the Hamburger Dom with 3 million participants are Kirchweih celebrations. Hamburg holds the record in partying anyway: Seven of the biggest Volksfest events happen in the Northern port city with the reputation of being posh and a bit snobby, with together nearly 11 million visitors it is nearly double the size of the legendary Oktoberfest in Munich.
If you ever visit Germany, here an insider tip: Avoid Oktoberfest. It is full of Englishmen. Check out one of the many other Volksfest parties all over Germany. Added benefit: Smaller beer glasses make sure that your drink doesn’t go stale. Enjoy!