Oktoberfest all over the world
Germany - The Local

Oktoberfest all over the world

Beer in Palestine? Oompah music in Ho Chi Minh City? With Munich’s legendary beer bash Oktoberfest about to celebrate its 200th anniversary, Ben Knight takes a look at the impact of Bavaria’s cultural juggernaut around the world.

Read it in The Local

For all Bavaria’s proud Catholicism, its defining event is an immense atheistic knees-up. Unlike the other major German folk party – the Cologne Karneval – the Oktoberfest is not rooted in any Christian ritual. Instead, it started life as a royal horse race at which the Virgin Mary was, if anything, noticeable by her absence.

When that race was run exactly 200 years ago to celebrate the union of two minor and forgotten monarchs, the adoring crowd needed to eat, so they needed a catering department. It was this afterthought that became a global revelry and a beer marketing paradise.

And though today’s Oktoberfest is drowning in tourist-pleasing kitsch, all its customs are based on the basest human instincts – unlike Christmas, there was never a pious core that could be spoiled by carnal excess and alcohol abuse.

Which is probably why so many countries have so enthusiastically adopted and adapted it. It’s become the world’s favourite excuse to get drunk, and it is a universal truth that getting drunk is enhanced by foolish shorts, white knee-high socks and a felt hat.

The honour of being the biggest non-German Oktoberfest is much contested – but if you’re measuring by the number of participants, then it’s a tight knee-slapping competition between the Blumenau Oktoberfest in Brazil and the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest in Canada.

Both boast an attendance of around 700,000 – 800,000 every year, but Blumenau probably deserves it on length alone – 18 days, two stomach-splitting days longer than even the original. And Blumenau is just that bit more, well, German than its rivals too. “Bands performing must suit 90 percent of their show to the musical style determined,” the promotional material warns. We have ways of making you oompah.

Like many extra-German Oktoberfests, Blumenau exists to pay homage to the community’s German roots. The town was settled in 1850 by German immigrants, who, as any self-respecting expats would, did their level best to turn their corner of the rainforest into a version of their homes. When the Oktoberfest was born in 1984 in the wake of a devastating local flood, it took on the form of a community-binding event.

The biggest US Oktoberfest is Zinzinnati, in – yes – Cincinnati, Ohio. After starting life as a block party in 1976, it now it attracts half a million people every year and features the “Gemütlichkeit Games” (a beer stein race and a beer barrel roll) – as well as the slightly nightmarish vision known as “The World’s Largest Chicken Dance.” Here too the German origins of many Cincinnatians was the abiding factor in its inception, as spokesman Chris Kemper explains: “Suffice to say the people of Cincinnati have always felt a certain kinship with the people of Germany. The cultural heritage is very strong and evident. In fact, an area of downtown is called Over the Rhine because the immigrants from Germany thought the area reminded them of home.”

But the Oktoberfest does not need a Germanic bloodline to flower and grow. The seeds of this unholy jamboree have drifted everywhere, and grown in different forms. There are now at least two major Oktoberfests in South East Asia, one in Hong Kong, and the other in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The latter was set up in 1993 in a large hotel by three homesick German businessmen.

In fact, stimulating business partnerships seems to be an important motivation for Oktoberfest Vietnam. “Co-organized by the German Business Association, sponsored by German businesses, and endorsed by the German Consul-General, it is a powerful showcase of Germany’s presence in and commitment to Vietnam,” the event’s marketing manager Victor Truong told me. But, lest he’s making it sound like a souped-up trade fair, he adds, “The event brings locals and expatriates together in a spirit of friendship and cultural exchange. It’s a lot of fun.”

But staging an Oktoberfest to maintain local German traditions, or to network with German businesses, is one thing – holding a beer-swilling shindig in a 98-percent Muslim country is a bit different. The Oktoberfest in the small Palestinian town of Taybeh began in 2005 thanks to the efforts of local brewer Nadim Khoury, who makes Taybeh, the only Palestinian beer in the country’s only Christian village.

Amazingly, the Taybeh Oktoberfest – in a village of only 2,000 – attracts 10,000 people every year. “Most times I am thinking we are absolutely crazy to stay in the highest mountain region of Palestine especially when we have all of the illegal Israeli settlements closing in on Taybeh and preparing a greater Israel,” says Maria Khoury, Nadim’s brother-in-law and Oktoberfest organizer.

Beer has a whole other meaning in Taybeh. “With God’s help we are still making the finest beer in the Middle East and feel this is our peaceful resistance,” says Khoury. Naturally, non-alcoholic Taybeh is provided for Muslim visitors.

With its hip-hop concerts and Palestinian dance performances complementing the brass bands, the Taybeh beer festival is probably one of the least traditional of the world’s Oktoberfests, but then there isn’t very much about Taybeh that is normal.

Khoury adds, “Oktoberfest to the local residents offers a way to promote the local products and to boost the economy … Also, the Oktoberfest celebration offers a break or a temporary escape from the harsh realities of occupation. It is like we cannot get to the world due to Israeli closure so we invite the world to come to us.”

“For the last five years we have been very blessed with good relationships among our Muslim and Jewish colleagues and the Oktoberfest gathers many people from diverse religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Many of our Muslim friends come to sing and dance,” she says.

Back in Munich, where the kegs are being rolled in and Oliver Kahn is probably sliding into his Lederhosen as we speak, the Oktoberfest has never taken on such political and spiritual significance – terms like “peaceful resistance” seem to sit awkwardly next to the image of red-faced men heaving their frothy steins in unison. Maybe there’s something to be said for drunken dissolution in knee-high socks after all.

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