ATISDA Blog (Association of Translators and Interpreters in the San Diego Area)

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What is Oktoberfest?

During the month of October, towns all over the United States celebrate Oktoberfest. These events are characterized by girls in German costume, loud music and dancing, sausage – and of course, beer. Lots of beer.

That information alone is enough to draw huge crowds at annual Oktoberfest events each year.

But what is everyone really celebrating? Where did Oktoberfest come from? (Besides Germany.) And why Oktober?

-Oktoberfest in Munich.
Image credit: AFP photo by Christof Stache,

Oktoberfest Origins

The origins of Oktoberfest date back to the month of October, or Oktober in German, over two hundred years ago. On October 12, 1810, the Bavarian Crown Prince Louis, who would later become King Louis I of Bavaria, married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. They invited the citizens of Munich to celebrate their marriage in a festival held in the fields outside the gates of the city of Munich, known as München in German. Munich is the capital of Bavaria (Bayern in German) in southern Germany.

history-of-oktoberfest-origins-and-first-festivalAn illustration of the original Oktoberfest.
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The festival was repeated in the following years, and the location became known as Therese’s fields, or Theresienwiese. Locals use the abbreviated word Wiesn to refer to the Oktoberfest celebration today, which still takes place on the fields outside of Munich in Bavaria.

The original Oktoberfest event included horse races, which were very popular and helped draw crowds in subsequent years. This tradition does not still continue in modern Oktoberfest celebrations, however. In the years after the first Oktoberfest celebrations were held, different types of carnival amusement activities were available.

aerial-view-above-and-history-of-oktoberfestAerial photo of the modern-day Oktoberfest grounds, held on the same fields as the first celebration. The grounds include a number of huge beer tents.
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Modern-Day Oktoberfest

Now that it’s October, the huge Oktoberfest celebration is already over in Munich. It seems counterintuitive that the Bavarian festival with the German word for October right in the name would already be over in early October.

That’s because it actually takes place nowadays during the last two weeks of September. The warmer and milder weather of September proved to be a better time to hold the festivities.

The event takes place over a 16-day period, starting on a Saturday in mid-September and continuing through the first Sunday in October. Depending on the calendar each year, the 16-day period may be extended to allow the festival to continue through October 3, German Reunification Day, a national holiday commemorating the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990.

Oktoberfest in Munich is the largest public festival in the world, drawing millions of people every year.

oktoberfest-munich-1565106Oktoberfest crowds in Munich.

 Too Unusual Not to Mention: The Flea Circus

One of the more unusual events at Oktoberfest is the flea circus, Flohzirkus in German. You read that right. The flea circus has been a fixture of Oktoberfest celebrations since the late 1940s. This type of attraction was introduced in England in the 1830s and was popular during the 1800s.

While perhaps designed with children in mind, adults alike can enjoy watching the fleas perform tricks like playing soccer or pulling tiny vehicles to which they are harnessed. These miniature attractions featuring trained fleas are often viewed under a magnifying glass.


The flea circus at Oktoberfest. This flea is attached to a tiny wheeled cart.
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Beer at Oktoberfest

The Oktoberfest celebration begins at noon on Saturday of the first day of the festival when the mayor of Munich uses a mallet to tap the first keg, trying to do so on the first swing. One site said that visitors take bets on how many attempts it takes before the mayor can open the first keg.

Once the first keg is open, the mayor shouts, “O’zapft is!” This Bavarian expression means that the keg is open. Oktoberfest has now officially begun.

Interestingly enough, according to one source, there was no beer at the very first Oktoberfest.

Over the years, however, beer began to gain an increasingly important role in this public gathering, with several large beer tents now making up the modern-day festivities. Last year’s Oktoberfest in 2015 saw 7.3 million liters of beer sold, enough to nearly fill three Olympic-size swimming pools.

Each of the beer tents serves a different type of beer and is decorated in different styles. The beer halls feature long tables for gathering in groups.

As in Oktoberfest events in the United States, seats in the tents fill up quickly, especially on Saturdays, when overall event attendance is so high that officials sometimes must limit the number of people who can enter the Oktoberfest grounds.

beer-tent-village-background_editedOne of the Oktoberfest beer tents, as photographed by Michael von Hassel.
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German Beer Purity Law

The beer sold at Oktoberfest, as elsewhere in Germany, must conform to the national regulations set up in the 1500s Reinheitsgebot, known as the German Beer Purity Law. This law, with its precursor originating in Bavaria in the 1400s, regulates what beverages can be sold with the name beer, or bier in German.

The Reinheitsgebot is the oldest food regulation in the world still in effect today. It said that beer could only be made with water, barley and hops. More recently, yeast was added to the list of permitted ingredients.

Some beer companies in Germany and around the world believe that noting that their beer conforms to this regulation is a good marketing technique to appeal to beer purists.

Beer bottle cap displaying that it conforms to the Reinheitsgebot regulation.
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Oktoberfest Clothing

Visitors to Munich’s Oktoberfest are encouraged to dress in traditional Bavarian clothing, known as Tracht, which includes the Dirndl for women and Lederhosen for men.

While the Dirndl and Lederhosen worn today are both originally based on Alpine peasant clothing, they can both be extremely elaborate and pricey. A very fancy Dirndl could cost thousands of Euros.

An interesting side note is that there seem to be trends in the styles of this clothing from year to year, despite its being based on traditional garments. For example, the recent Oktoberfest fashion trend leaned toward a slim-fit shirt for the men as part of their Bavarian costume.

Men’s Oktoberfest Clothing

The men’s outfits that we most commonly see in the United States for Oktoberfest are Lederhosen, leather shorts with suspenders, worn with a shirt on top. The shirts are often white or of a checked pattern. In German, the word Lederhosen literally means “leather pants.”

burschenellbachBavarian men in Lederhosen.
Image credit: Original photographer and uploader was Florian Schott.

Many men prefer to wear longer pants instead of shorts for Oktoberfest because of the cooler fall weather. These longer pants, Kniebundhosen or Bundhosen, hit below the knee and are often worn with long grey socks to cover the entire leg.

lederhosen-outfit-lederhosen-costume-2xA diagram showing the parts of traditional Kniebundhosen.

Often men will wear a traditional Tyrolean hat, bearing the name of a region called Tyrol in modern-day Austria and Italy. This hat, originally made of green felt, was worn in the Alps and is known in German as a Tirolerhut.

The traditional decoration for this style of Alpine hat is the tail of the chamois goat and feathers, though simpler and less expensive versions with just a feather are also seen at Oktoberfest celebrations.

ssb-landeskommandantundbezirksmajoreThe Tyrolean Rites, a traditional militia group, seen in Bavarian clothing, including long pants and Tyrolean hats with decoration.
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Women’s Oktoberfest Clothing

Women celebrating Oktoberfest wear a dress called a Dirndl, a traditional outfit from the regions of Bavaria, South Tyrol and Austria. The outfit includes a blouse (usually white) and a bodice on the top and a full skirt that hits around the knees. An apron completes the Dirndl.

Some bodices lace up in the front, but others close without the lacing that is common in many costumes for sale in the United States.


Woman in Dirndl. This bodice has the lace-up style commonly seen in Oktoberfest costumes that women wear in the United States.
Image credit: Nemoralis – Own work,

There are variations in Dirndl style, with some not including the blouse and some bodices not including laces.


Women wearing different Dirndl styles.
Image credit: Florian Schott – Own work (Eigenes Photo), GFDL,

In recent years, some women have opted to wear the traditionally masculine pants or shorts instead of the Dirndl, but these traditional dresses of different styles are still quite popular and commonly seen at Oktoberfest.

Dirndl Apron Bows and Marital Status

At the Oktoberfest celebration, the way the woman ties the bow on the apron of her Dirndl indicates her marital status.

When she ties the bow on the left front side of the apron, she is single and ready to mingle. When a woman ties the bow on the right front side of the apron, it means she is in a relationship. A bow in the center in the front of the apron indicates she’s a virgin.

ribbon-side_editedDirndl apron bow placement and meaning.
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Women at Oktoberfest who wear the apron bow tied in the back are either widows or waitresses. It should be easy to tell the difference, since the waitress will be the one carrying beer.

A Toast

When the waitress (with her apron bow tied in the back) comes by to sell you beer at Oktoberfest, be sure to make a toast (Prosit) before enjoying it by saying Prost! (Cheers!)



Top image credit: An Oktoberfest beer tent photographed by Michael von Hassel,

Here are the resources I used to write this article:

General Information about Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest History and Origins

Information for Planning a Trip to Oktoberfest in Munich

Flea Circus

Oktoberfest Clothing

Beer at Oktoberfest and in Germany

Oktoberfest German Expressions