Cultural Humour from Albert Mooney
This is an article about exploding the myths of Oktoberfest, so, by way of introduction, let’s cut straight to myth number one …
Myth Number One: Oktoberfest is fun.
No it isn’t. It’s the opposite of fun. Imagine the following. You find yourself lost in an alien world, a hellish, pulsing, neon mash up of a circus, the worst rock concert you’ve ever been to, and “Alice in Wonderland” as written by Hunter S. Thompson. Strange people are grinning inanely at you. Most of them are dressed as cuckoo clocks. The atmosphere is airless and hot, rancid with the smell of alcohol and the human body in its less edifying moments.
You feel as if you are being repeatedly beaten over the head with a large radio playing 1970s pop music. You try to escape, but you can’t. Thousands of leering figures stagger around you, as if the zombie apocalypse has crashed into the Village People’s “YMCA” video. As you cower in confusion, a drunken Australian attempts to have sex with you.
This can mean only one of three things:
A. You are having a feverish nightmare, from which you will shortly awake screaming (before you get to the part with the Australian if you’re lucky.)
B. Your name is Charlie Sheen.
Or (and statistically most likely)
C. You’re at Oktoberfest. Fun? I don’t think so.
Myth Number Two: Oktoberfest is “traditional.”
Nothing that originates in the 19th century gets to be called traditional. That’s the point of the 19th century, the era when we decided that industrialisation, urban life, and mass
communications offered a better deal than wearing clogs and dying in childbirth.
Is the Eiffel Tower an example of traditional architecture?
Who would describe trains as a traditional mode of transport? That’s the 19th century for you. Back in the pre-modern day, “traditional” Bavarians are unlikely to have spent their time squeezed into tight leather trousers while dancing drunkenly on benches with buxom wenches in cleavage-enhancing dresses. If they did, they’d never have invented the Catholic Church.
Myth Number Three: Ok, Oktoberfest may not be traditional, but Dirndls and Lederhosen are traditional, and so is the beer.
Wrong again. The original festivals on the Wiesn in the early 1800s would have witnessed neither the design of costumes we see today nor the beer we see spilled all over them today, because neither had been invented. Like the Scottish kilt, dirndls and lederhosen are relatively recent romantic idealisations of traditional peasant dress.
They are as authentic as a Disney cartoon. The same goes for the beer. You can get traditional beer at Oktoberfest if you go looking for it, but most revellers drink Helles – known as “lager” in the Anglo world, the very definition of mass-produced, refrigerated and carbonated beer.
When this was first introduced to the Munich market six decades after the first Oktoberfest, traditionalist beer drinkers regarded it with the same horror that some of us today reserve for alcopops: as a modern abomination.
I know this for a fact because I have a friend, Eric, who has been a regular at the Weisses Bräuhaus since about 1875, and he told me he was so shocked when he tasted his first Helles that it took him a few minutes to order another one.
This is 200 year old royalist propaganda. It is true, but only in the cable news version of history. Yes, there was a royal wedding in 1810, and yes, local people did celebrate with horse racing and other joviality in the Wiesn area (today’s festival ground), and yes, this became an annual event, eventually expanding up the Richter scale into the colossus of beer and dead chickens that can probably be seen from space today.
All true, as far as it goes, but there was more to it. The deeper history of Oktoberfest predates 1810.
Open-air festivals of beer and merry-making at this time of year were already a fixed part of Munich’s calendar, when the last of the summer beer stocks were cleared away in preparation for the beginning of the autumn brewing season. Märzen summer beer remains the most traditional beer available at Oktoberfest today.
The history goes back even further than that, however, all the way to the Rome of the Caesars and the Colosseum. “Panem et circenses”: bread and circuses. The image of happy people cheering the beautiful royal couple is precisely that – an image, and one as carefully airbrushed as any “Vanity Fair” cover.
Firstly, the ruling family had been “royal” for about four years – kings, not by the grace of God but of Napoleon Bonaparte, for whom they were temporary satraps in a grand European conflict in the course of which they would cravenly change sides according to the prevailing wind. And secondly, the people were not so happy.
Many of them were hungry, many of them were reluctant Bavarians living in newly seized territory, and many of them regarded Bavaria’s kingmaker, Napoleon, as the hot favourite to win that year’s Deutschland sucht den Antichrist. “Feckless royals with shaky crown hijack already existing tradition for purposes of distraction and to create sense of cultural togetherness in grumbling population” might be a more accurate description.
Myth Number Five: They’ve been singing “Living Next Door to Alice” at Oktoberfest for 200 years.
Actually, this one is true. It was originally known as “Living Next Door to Therese von
Sachsen-Hildburghausen,” and the chorus went:
“Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen? Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen?
Who the fuck is Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen?”
…which were the words reportedly uttered by Ludwig when told about his arranged marriage.