210 years ago on the 12th October 1810 the very first Oktoberfest was held. Known across the world today as a German beer-drinking holiday, many do not know how old the festival is. So where did it originate from?

In 1810, Bavaria, within modern-day Germany, was ruled by Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria. Maximilian had been on the Bavarian throne for four years, and his oldest son, Kronprinz Ludwig, was about to get married. Ludwig was next in line for the throne, and he was marrying Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Just the year before, Princess Therese had been on a list of potential brides for Napoleon, but it was Ludwig who she was eventually betrothed to. The occasion of the marriage of an heir to a kingdom has historically been a time of great celebration and jubilation and Ludwig and Therese’s marriage was no different. Huge festivities were planned to take place in Munich, the Bavarian capital, for the day of the wedding.

Queen Therese of Bavaria by Joseph Karl Stieler in 1855, and King Ludwig I of Bavaria in Coronation Regalia also by Stieler in 1826.

As the celebrations were to be suitably large and extravagant, it was decided that they would be held in the fields outside the gates of the city. The fields were named Theresienwiese in honour of the Princess and still hold the name today. The celebrations lasted for days, and culminated in a horse race on the 18th October. It is unclear where the idea of a horse race for the marital celebrations originated from, as it was not a traditional part of the celebrations. It is widely believed that the idea came from Andreas Michael Dall’Armi, a Member of the Bavarian National Guard, although it has also been proposed that it was in fact Franz Baumgartner, a coachman and Sergeant who was also in the National Guard who came up with the idea. Wherever the idea originated, it proved incredibly popular with the people of Munich, and it was due to this popularity that it was decided to repeat the horse race the following year, cementing the future of Oktoberfest as an annual event.

The Theresienwiese fields were used as a modern-day festival ground is, with no permanent buildings erected on it. The Sendlinger Hill was used for spectators to stand on, and the king had his own special tent erected for the duration of the celebrations. The modern association of Oktoberfest with alcohol had its origins in the very first Oktoberfest, for there were wine and beer tastings held on the hill. Before the horse race began, 16 pairs of children dressed in traditional Bavarian costumes performed to celebrate the wedding of Ludwig and Therese. Then, 30 horses ran the 3,400 metre-long race track, with Franz Baumgartner’s horse winning the gold medal. The event ended with a children’s choir singing to the crowds.

The Horse race at the Oktoberfest in Munich, 1823, by Heinrich Adam.  

The following year the event was repeated in the same fields, but this time an agricultural fair was also held alongside the race. The event was held once again in 1812, but in 1813 the now-annual event had to be cancelled due to the Napoleonic Wars. As soon as the war finished Oktoberfest returned, however, and by 1819 it was considered important enough to be funded by the city due to the revenue and publicity it brought to Munich. By this time the festivities had expanded; in 1818, a carousel and two swings were added to the list of entertainment, whilst proper food and drink stands had begun to be erected to serve the large crowds. Carnival booths were created where visitors could win prizes including silver and jewellery. In 1824, Munich city awarded Andreas Michael Dall’Armi the first gold citizens medal for creating Oktoberfest.

As the decades went on, the celebrations only grew and grew. In 1850 a parade of 8,000 people dressed in traditional costume was held which then became an annual tradition. The same year, a bronze statue of a woman – the personification of Bavaria – was erected on the site which still stands today. By the late nineteenth century electric lighting had developed enough that lit booths and carousels set up on the grounds. Just as there was dancing and singing in the original Oktoberfest, performers came from far and wide. By now, the demand for alcohol had grown hugely and breweries decided to erect huge beer tents with musicians, replacing the once-small beer stands.

Oktoberfest in the early 1900s, via Medium.

As the twentieth-century arrived, Oktoberfest was now a staple of Bavarian life, having run for close to a century. As time went on, the festivities had been brought further forwards into September when the weather was warmer and the days were longer. Although the occasional years had to be cancelled due to war and disease, it always returned. During the Nazi regime, however, Oktoberfest took on a darker tone as Jews were forbidden to work on the fields from 1933. Hitler used Oktoberfest as a propaganda opportunity, renaming it in 1938 to “Großdeutsches Volksfest” (Greater German folk festival). The onset of the Second World War put an end to Oktoberfest celebrations.

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Oktoberfest was restarted properly in 1950 and ever since then the festival has been opened in the exact same way. At 12:00pm a 12-gun salute is held, then the Mayor of Munich taps a beer keg. Parades are held, traditional clothes are widely worn, and of course plenty of alcohol is consumed. Oktoberfest is now the world’s largest folk festival and it draws around six million visitors annually. Many other countries in the world now even hold their own local Oktoberfest celebrations. On the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest in 2010, a historical festival took place in the south part of the Theresienwiese fields to explain the festival’s history. Sadly, this year Oktoberfest has had to be cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, meaning this is the first year that the Oktoberfest will not take place since 1949. Prior to this, there had only been 25 years that the festival was cancelled since it started in 1810.

Traditional costume from modern Oktoberfests: Bavarian hats (Tirolerhüte) and Folk dancers at the 200th anniversary.

But what became of Princess Therese and Kronprinz Ludwig, the couple whose marriage started this centuries-long tradition? The couple had a somewhat successful marriage, with nine children being born and lasting 44 years. However, Ludwig – who later became King Ludwig I of Bavaria – had many extramarital affairs, much to the frustration of Therese. Therese was very popular with the people of Bavaria as she patronised numerous charitable organizations for widows, orphans and the poor, and was considered an ideal queen, wife and mother. Her husband, however, was not so fortunate. Anger and unrest grew during his reign, and in 1848 Ludwig was forced to abdicate after tensions in the kingdom over one of his lovers became too much. The couple’s legacy, however, continues to this day.

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