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by Sara Doersam

Munich, Germany's almost 200-year-old Oktoberfest celebration has grown into the world's biggest celebration of beer. The original Oktoberfest celebration dates back to 1810 when, on October 12, Crown Prince Ludwig I, who went on to become King Ludwig I, married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The citizens of Munich were invited to share in the nuptial festivities in a meadow in Munich, which the Crown Prince renamed Theresienwiese or Theresa's Meadow. The festivities concluded with a horse race in the presence of the royal family. Shortly thereafter, a resolution was passed to repeat the celebration the following year and thus, the tradition of Oktoberfest was established.

Visitors from around the world make the pilgrimage each autumn to Munich to experience the modern day Oktoberfest, but the celebration has an interesting past, which has caused the event to evolve through the years.

In 1826, during the reign of King Ludwig I, Oktoberfest concluded with a huge fireworks display. "This fireworks display has given me a great deal of pleasure," King Ludwig announced, expressing his appreciation to the National Artillery Co. "It's the first time I've seen one, and that's why I'll never forget it."

The 25th anniversary of Oktoberfest as well as the monarch's silver wedding anniversary saw a new tradition added to the festivities in 1835. A colossal parade with 86 magnificently festooned horse drawn carts filled with gaily dressed people highlighted the event. It also saw a marksmanship competition with both riflemen and crossbowmen. Both traditions are carried on today. In addition, cart races which imitate the chariot races of ancient Rome are still staged on the first Sunday of Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest of 1865 ended with street riots, which required military force to break up the fracas. A proposal to limit beer consumption followed the disturbance but was quickly shot down by local magistrates. Just four years later Schichtl's famous magic show was introduced featuring a staged beheading of a live person. The magic show with the guillotine spectacle continues to this very day.

Marzenbier, the traditional beer of Oktoberfest, was first served at the event in 1872 by Spatenbrau under the name Wies'n-Maerzen. It was a darker, stronger beer than previous offered, and the merchants charged a higher price for it. It was traditionally brewed in March because it was forbidden to brew perishable beer during the summer months. Spaten still markets it today under the name Ur-Marzen, which means "original" Marzen.

Just a few years before the turn of the century, Thomas Brewery constructed the first grand-style beer palace at Theresienwiese and soon the small beer houses, predecessors to the grand beer halls, were crowded out by other beer palaces. Soon Georg Lang, an enterprising brewery owner, bought, then razed five beer houses. He replaced them with a huge beer palace and used "jolly songs" performed by his Original Oberland Brass Band to encourage visitors to stay and sing along all the while buying more beer. The other beer palaces quickly followed suit until every one had a bandstand, and thus the birth of the beer tent bands.

The traditional grand entrance of innkeepers and breweries to the festival grounds at the outset of the event first took place in 1906 and was initiated by a local colorful innkeeper. Soon Carl Gabriel brought sideshows and carnivals to the festivities. He introduced the first roller coaster, dubbed "Devil's Wheels" to Oktoberfest, and now there are more than 250 carnival attractions at the event.

The 100th anniversary of Oktoberfest in 1910 ushered in historic activities and folk costume parades, which continue at Oktoberfest today, but Oktoberfest was canceled in 1914 because of the first World War. It was again interrupted from 1939 until 1945, the longest interruption to date, because of World War II.

Since 1950, it has been the tradition for the Lord Mayor of Munich to tap the first beer keg each year. Festivalgoers like to count the number of times he must hit the tap to drive it into the keg. Upon completion, the mayor bellows "O'zapft ist!" (The beer is tapped!) The Lord Mayor rides in on the Schottenhamel family cart during the opening parade and taps the inaugural keg at the Schottenhamel beer tent.

But Oktoberfest has not always been bacchanalia and revelry. Sadly, in 1980 a right wing extremist detonated a bomb at the main entrance killing himself and 12 festivalgoers and injuring another 213 people. The following day, the festival remained closed as an official day of mourning in honor of those killed in the tragic assassination.

By 1984, five of the six breweries permitted tents at Oktoberfest had begun serving their beers from mammoth serving tanks. Only Augustiner continues to serve its beer from traditional kegs.

Oktoberfest today is a blend of modern technology, carnival atmosphere and traditional stands and beer tents. Attendance figures topped 7 million in 1996 with more than 5 million mugs of beer consumed over 16 days. There are some 475 merchants and 64 dining spots within Theresienwiese's 104 acres (only 77 were used in recent years).

Oktoberfest kicks off in mid-September and continues through the first Sunday of October. In addition to Spaten and Augustiner, the only other breweries permitted tents at Oktoberfest are Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrauhaus and Lowenbrau because they brew beer within Munich's city limits.

Although the mood is always high there are a few rules:

Don't even think of driving to Oktoberfest. Munich police have check points throughout the city. There are also strategically placed "sobering up" tents at the festival. It's best to use either a cab or public transportation, which is abundant and easily accessible.

After extensive imbibing, one may hear the call of mother nature, but relieving oneself anywhere other than designated bathroom facilities can lead to a hefty fine.

The old five finger discount of coveted beer mugs as souvenirs is strictly prohibited. Indeed, some 150,000 of them were recovered by authorities last year from festivalgoers who stowed them away before leaving the premises.

For more information about Oktoberfest, call the Munich Tourist Bureau at +49-89-233-0300 or fax it at +49-89-233-30233. You can also get more information from the following Web sites:

Munich Tourist Bureau: www.muenchen-tourist.de

Navigo Multimedia: www.navigo.de

For lodging information, call the Munich Hotel Association at +49-89-307750-0 or fax it at +49-89-307750-55. You can also get more information from the Munich Hotel Association Web site at www.muenchen-tourist.de.

Finally, consider buying a copy of Navigo Multimedia's Virtual Oktoberfest CD-ROM, (see my review of it under craft brew CD-ROM reviews on Sally's Place) available through Navigo's Web site listed above. If that doesn't inspire you to make the trek to Munich, I don't know what will. Prosit!

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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