The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Oktoberfest! What fucking month is it in? And what’s the deal with oompah bands?
Lie #1: It’s in October
You’d really think it would be, wouldn’t you? It’s in October a bit, but it’s mostly in September. Oktoberfest runs for over two weeks — had this year’s flagship event in Munich not been canceled due to COVID-19, it would be taking place from September 19th to October 4th.
While the early ones in the 19th century did take place predominantly in October, the festival was moved to slightly earlier in the year to take advantage of the longer days and nicer weather in September. Nowadays, Oktoberfest normally runs for 16 days until the first Sunday in October, but if that Sunday comes before October 3rd — German Unity Day, which commemorates East and West Germany reuniting in 1990 into one nation — it’s extended to include that. This means that the most in-October it can ever be is six days out of the 16 days of the festival, just 37.5 percent.
Munich’s Oktoberfest is the original, and the one all other Oktoberfest celebrations take cues from. Six million people attend it every year, four times the normal population of the city. That said, 2019’s event in Qingdao, China, attracted 7.2 million visitors.
This isn’t the first time it’s been canceled either — 1854 and 1873 both saw cholera epidemics hit Munich, and all of Germany was, uh, pretty busy during 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945. Between those busy periods were a few years where hyperinflation made buying a few drinks impossible, so all in all, it’s been canceled 24 times since starting in 1810.
Lie #2: Germans Can’t Get Enough of Oompah Music
Outside Germany, the kinds of bands you get playing at Oktoberfest events can be a bit pastiche-y, all silly helmets, double entendres, offensive accents and crap gags, interspersed with polka tunes. They’ve taken bits of actual Oktoberfest, bits of military band shows and bits of old music hall/vaudeville traditions and smashed them together. In the U.K. in particular, some bands seem determined to never move on from World War II, and will frequently play things like the theme tune to the 1955 war epic The Dam Busters. About one in five oompah bands seems to feature a big fat guy wearing a comedy blonde pigtail wig.
It turns out the real thing is a bit less silly, which makes sense when you think about it — six million people gathering to party to polka music is a pretty odd thought. “Weird Al” Yankovic rules incredibly hard, but six million is a shitload of people.
“In Germany they are known as blaskepelle, or ‘blowing bands’,” says Geoff Moore, bandleader and tuba player of the DDFK Oktoberfest Party Band, who points out that the name “oompah” comes from a song in the musical Oliver!, Oom-Pah-Pah, a kind of beer-hall waltz in three-quarters timing. “They started off being very traditional brass bands with up to 30 members. They’d either be seated or marching around in the marquees in Munich, playing traditional folk music.”
As time went on and music changed, so did the kind of music played at what is, ultimately, a big-ass party. It’s a mass-appeal event, more about floor-fillers — admittedly, floor-fillers being interpreted by an ensemble including a tuba — than dated stereotypes and weird jokes about big horns.
“Evening events have party bands, like you’d have at a wedding or birthday party, or bands playing traditional tunes but with rock or disco beats behind them,” says Moore. “There’s also a genre called Schlager music, which has never really made it to the U.K. or U.S. It’s just uncomplicated happy music, music that doesn’t make you think but does make you tap your feet.”
Lie #3: Beer! Beer! Beer!
It’s not a beer festival, it’s a party with lots of beer at it. If there are 35 expertly-curated craft beers from obscure but charming breweries with cute names, that’s delightful, but it’s arguably over-intellectualizing what is meant, at its heart, to be a big dumb party.
“The beers are generally pretty limited,” says Moore. “Each brewery will have a big marquee and offer a few beers — a lager, a pilsner, a dunkel and a weissbier, and that’s it. We’ve played events where people showed up expecting a craft beer festival and complained about what was on offer.”
The Qingdao Oktoberfest boasts 1,500 different beers, which is undeniably impressive but not what it’s meant to be about — it’s not so much about drinking lots of different beers as it is about drinking lots and lots of beer. A subtle difference, perhaps, but an important one, like the difference between sampling an elaborate tasting menu and trying to win a pie-eating contest.
Lie #4: “Bring Me A Beer, Serving-Wench!”
Don’t… don’t call them that. Dude. Duuuude. There’s a lot going on here.
The traditional Bavarian outfit women wear at Oktoberfest, the bodice/apron thing, is called a dirndl. It’s just a traditional costume, and has nothing to do with being a server or anything like that, but in the costume-store world it’s somehow got conflated with a few other stereotypes — French maids, miscellaneous Renaissance Faire figures and so on. It’s also a fairly striking outfit, so a lot of signs for German-themed bars and events end up featuring images of cleavage-y young women holding large beers, and a lot of them use dirndls as uniforms. So it’s all got a bit mixed up. Unless they’re standing behind a bar and selling beer, someone wearing one is unlikely to get you a drink.
For obvious reasons — reasons that rhyme with “Schmadolf Schmitler” — modern-day Germany has a complicated relationship with a lot of its folk traditions. Did dirndls feature heavily in Nazi propaganda? You bet your pinafored ass they did! This association put people off them for a good few decades, but in the 21st century, they, along with their male counterpart, lederhosen, have experienced something of a renaissance. By 2013 the New York Times claimed it was standard for every young Bavarian to own a traditional outfit, and that while attending Oktoberfest in jeans would have been normal in the 1970s, dirndls and lederhosen were now the norm.
“Wench” is also not a good word. It’s flung around cheerfully at medieval-themed restaurants, but really shouldn’t be. As medieval expert Carissa Harris writes, “The term’s medieval history paved the way for its later use as a gendered racial slur, evolving from a relatively neutral term designating youth or servitude to one signifying femininity, then transgressive feminine sexuality and finally black feminine sexuality. This long history enabled ‘wench’ to become a tool for dehumanizing black women, insisting on their sexual availability to white men and facilitating their exploitation.”
And say please, goddamn it. In German it’s “bitte.” Playing dress-up is no reason to forget your manners, you schweinhund.
Lie #5: “There’s Too Much Goddamn Foam on This Beer”
It’s meant to be like that. Germans like a big-ass head on their beer, an inch and a half or so, with their giant beer glasses having extra space to accommodate the foam — it’s not a way of ripping you off with less beer. (Although, it was in 2012, when some liters of beer sold contained as little as 800 mililiters.) In fact, part of the appeal of a big, pillowy head is that it’s meant to prove you aren’t being palmed off with stale beer.
The giant, beast-like mug is known as a Mass (or, to use that fancy German letter, the eszett, Maß). It holds a liter of beer, plus head, and is heavy enough that it’s responsible for quite a lot of the injuries that happen at Oktoberfest every year. A typical event will involve 800 or so unconscious people and 500 or so fights, a tenth of which involve people being walloped with glasses. Even with no beer in them, they can weigh up to 3 pounds, and according to physicist Erich Schuller, can easily be swung with twice the force necessary to smash a human skull. In tests Schuller did involving brand-new glasses and human skulls, the skulls always broke before the glass.
Not so much a case of too much head in your beer glass… as too much beer glass in your head!
It is no laughing matter, people die.