The very first Oktoberfests were in October, but as the festival became longer and more intricate, it expanded into September. Now, Oktoberfest is more of a September-fest with most of the two week celebration taking place in September.
When is Oktoberfest?
Oktoberfest always ends on the first Sunday of October. The official start date of the festival is the Saturday two weeks before that. So in 2022 the festival starts September 17 and ends October 2. Yep, only two days of Oktoberfest will be in October.
How did Oktoberfest Start?
The first Oktoberfest was an observance of the wedding of the crown prince of Bavaria to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. There was a five day celebration that began on October 12, 1810 and culminated in a horse race on October 17. During a time when most people didn’t have much to look forward to, the wedding festivities brought a huge boost of morale to the area.
State organizers decided to repeat the gathering and horse race the following year in 1811 and combine it with the annual agricultural festival. Basically, everyone was having so much fun at Princess Therese’s wedding that they said, “Let’s do this again next year, same time, same place!”
In fact, to ensure the festival really was in the exact same place the grassy area where the townspeople gathered became known as “Theresienwiese” which translates to “Therese’s green” in honor of the Princess’s wedding.
When Did the Begining of Oktoberfest shift to September?
The agricultural festival and horse race on Theresienwiese continued as an annual event and in 1818 vendors were finally approved to sell food and drink to attendees. Now, fest-goers had no reason to return home to dinner and gaieties could continue well into the night. They could fill up on snacks and food like sausages, traditional pretzels, and steins of beer. However, there was one problem: nightfall comes quite early in October in Munich.
On October 12, the historical date of the festival the sun would set before 6:30pm. This was a time 70 years before the first electrical street lamps would illuminate the streets of Paris in 1978. Lighting the fields of the festival would be difficult and expensive. The last weeks of September daylight lasted more than an hour longer (for example the sunset on September 17 will be 7:24pm), and the weather was warmer, too.
Therefore in 1819, when Munich city officials took over organizing the festival they shifted the start dates to September. This way they could take advantage of longer, warmer days to make money off of attendees.
There you go! Another historical oddity that comes down to a little bit of history, and a little bit of making money. It’s similar to the reason Oktoberfest beers shifted from the dark malty dunkle-style beers, to the traditional Marzen, and finally to the modern Festbier.
Speaking of Beer, When Did That Become Central to the Festival?
In 1818 beer was first served at Oktoberfest. From then on the role of beer grew in importance during Oktoberfest. When the new tradition of a special ceremonial “entry” for the mayor and festival organizers began in 1887 the head of each brewery was also part of the procession, right in line with the mayor himself.
In 1892 beer began being served in the one liter glass Maß jugs which have been an icon of Oktoberfest ever since. Now that attendees could see the beer in the massive glasses the importance of it to the festival accelerated. By 1896 the small wooden sheds that served beer began being replaced by “beer palaces” which eventually shifted into the beer tents seen at the festival today.
Beer tents ballooned in size holding several thousand customers. In 1913 the largest bräurosl (beer tent) in history was erected by Hacker-Pschorr to hold twelve thousand people. Current bräurosl hold between six thousand and ten thousand people.
Ceremonial Tapping of the First Keg
To further emphasize how important beer is to Oktoberfest there is a ritual that began in 1950. At exactly noon on the opening day of the event Munich’s mayor taps the first barrel of beer and shouts “O’zapft is!” (“The keg is tapped!”). Each year the tapping of the keg is buzzed about with bets being placed on how many swings of the mallet it will take to tap the beer. The record is two swings of the mallet with the record for the most swings being 19 (yikes!).
The first mayor to set this tradition was Thomas Wimmer. He was particularly enthusiastic in 1950 about the festival’s return after it disappeared for 4 years during World War II. When Oktoberfest rebounded after World War II beer drinking and merrymaking were at the center of the tradition. By 1960, the last recognizable element from the first Oktoberfest, the horse race, was phased out completely.
Even though the kick off of official Oktoberfest is in September, Oktoberfestbiers are packages and released as early as August. Breweries are just trying to help people around the world get into the Oktoberfest spirit.
Both the light Festbiers that are poured on the festival grounds and the more traditional Marzens are sold by the six Oktoberfest breweries: Paulaner, Augustiner, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Hacker-Pschorr, and Spaten as well as other German brewers.