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Bavarian Custom Celebrated in El Paso: Oktoberfest

Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.

By Kelly Caprio, Lori Powe and Victor Alonso Research Contribution by Maricruz

Beer wagon at Munich OktoberfestEINS, ZWEI, GSUFOR! (ONE, TWO, DRINK!) This toast echoes often among the laughter, music, and clinking of raised beer in the Oktoberfest celebrations. For many, drinking German beer is the main attraction of Oktoberfest. But there is more to this old Bavarian tradition than that. 

Beer wagon at Munich Oktoberfest. Photo by Kelly Caprio

The first festival was held on October 12,1810, in the Bavarian capital of Munich as a celebration of the marriage of Prince Ludwig to Princess Theresa Von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Held in a beautiful meadow called Theresienwiess, in honor of the Princess, the wedding festivities drew 30,000 people.

A horse race held outside the city gate concluded the wedding festivities and proved so popular that the following year horse racing became part of the state agricultural fair. Eventually, booths serving food and drinks were added, and a Bavarian tradition was born.

While Munich has managed to maintain most of the rich traditions of the Oktoberfest, the date of the celebration is one thing that has changed. Originally, the festival started in the month of October and lasted for two weeks, but due to bad weather in the area during the season, it was changed approximately 20 years ago to start in the month of September and end in October.

The Oktoberfest parade takes place on the third Saturday in September, opening the two-week festival. Beer wagons lead the two-hour parade, with six different breweries represented every year. Trailing the beer wagons are marksmen, hunters, floats and bands. Historical groups, guilds in medieval costumes and crossbow societies also march in the parade. In her book, Festivals of Western Europe, Dorothy Spicer describes the fun as beginning when the burgomaster, or the mayor, taps the first keg of beer.

Horse drawn wagons, decorated with colorful streamers, deliver the barrels of beer to the huge tents that are set up to hold at least 3,00 people and a 30-piece band each. Girls on top of the wagons throw flowers to the crowds as they make their deliveries.

The German beer is served in heavy, one-liter mugs, making the action of bringing a mug to the mouth equal to a five-pound biceps curl! That is why, according to German Air Force Captain Rudolph Bombosch at Fort Bliss, in every tent you will find 12 very strong German women carrying steins of beer are consumed at the Oktoberfest, but that is not the only reason for attending the celebration.

Plenty of food accompanies the various beers that are available. Some of the favorite foods at the feast include various sausages, sauerkraut, cheese, roasted chicken, salted radishes, strudels, potatoes and giant pretzels that can be worn around the neck to snack on now and then, Chocolate in different kinds of packages, sizes and shapes is a favorite treat, and booths offer chocolate hearts and horseshoes as well as gingerbread hearts with attached ribbons so that they, like pretzels, can be worn around the neck.

Among the many German sausages or wursts offered at Oktoberfest are bratwurst, a white sausage made of veal and pork and knackwurst, a thick, highly seasoned pork sausage. Others are made of veal or combinations of pork or beef. In his book Welcome to Bavaria, William Mahoney describes weisswurst, the veal sausage that is so popular in Germany that its birthday, February 22, 1857, is observed and celebrated. Other meats available include schnitzel, thin slices of breaded pork or veal.

The wonderful costumes worn by the men and women during Oktoberfest add to the splendor of the festivities. The Bavarian costumes worn by the men are called lederhosen, short, leather pants worn with suspenders, a waistcoat, boots or heavy shoes, and knee-high socks, some of which are embroidered. Some Bavarian men also wear a green felt hat decorated with a chamois plume.

The women wear dirndl costumes which include fancy, embroidered aprons decorated with lace which often matches the lace on the sleeves of the dresses.

"Oompah bands" (which has no English translation but is believed to have originated from the sound that the trombone makes) are clad in lederhosen and play songs for dancing throughout the festival. One dance that seems to be a favorite of people of all ages is the Enten Tanz, loosely translated as "Duck Dance". Otherwise known as the "Chicken Dance" to the Americans and "Pajaritos al Bailar" to Mexicans, it has, according to Captain Manfred Jaeger of Fort Bliss, been part of the Munich Oktoberfest for approximately 25 years. Once this tune begins, the dance floor is crowded with people flapping their arms and dancing in circles, laughing the entire time.

A 500-year-old custom, the Schaffler Tanz, or "Cooper's Dance" may be included in Munich's celebration. Jaeger describes a schaffler, or cooper, as a person who makes a living building beer barrels or kegs. Mahoney says the dance is a favorite of video and movie makers. This dance is still performed by coopers only and is characterized by the stomping of the feet and slapping knees, thighs and boots to the rhythm of the music.

Beginning shortly after Munich's plague in the 15th century, the coopers originally began performing the dance in an attempt to lift the spirits of the frightened people by tempting them out of their homes once the plague was over. Still lifting the spirits of millions, the Schaffler Tanz is most likely the last genuine guild dance in Europe. Carnival rides, side shows and sports events make up another part of the entertainment, and there is definitely something for everyone to enjoy.

For those wanting to take home mementos, numerous decorated booths sell souvenir mugs with the date and word Oktoberfest. Other booths sell clothes, household items and toys. Similar celebrations, though shorter and much smaller, have sprung up wherever Bavarians have relocated.

German Soldiers Bring Oktoberfest to Fort Bliss

German Air force members in Lederhosen perform Woodchoppers Ball at Fort Bliss Oktoberfest.Border residents are fortunate that our German friends have introduced us to Oktoberfest, a celebration of Bavarian culture and history. Although you may not find a celebration the size of that in Munich, you will sample German beer and you can try schnitzel, bratwurst, dumplings, and other delicious German specialties. And while polka music is not everyone's favorite, somehow at Oktoberfest you find yourself spinning around the dance floor or at least tapping your foot to the festive music played by a German Oompah band.

German Air force members in Lederhosen perform Woodchoppers Ball at Fort Bliss Oktoberfest. Photo by Kelly Caprio

One of many festivals held here in the Southwest, the Oktoberfest sponsored by the German Air Force contingent offers plenty of fun, food and entertainment for the people of El Paso and the surrounding area. According to Jaeger, the German population in El Paso is estimated at 3,000 families, of which approximately 1,700 are German soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss.

Rudolph Bombosch, one of the organizers of the 1992 Fort Bliss Oktoberfest, said that the German Air Force has been celebrating this festival yearly on Fort Bliss for over 10 years.

In order to prepare for the festival, meetings are held once a month, seven months prior to the Oktoberfest date. Captain Bombosch explains that it takes a long time to organize the shipping of the band and beer from Germany.

Bombosch adds that the Fort Bliss Oktoberfest is a five-day event held in September, beginning on Wednesday and ending Sunday, when the celebration is open to the general public. The festival opens with a parade including a decorated horse-drawn wagon and a German band. The parade ends at the commanding General's house on post. The band plays German music, followed by a speech from the Commanding General. The parade then proceeds to the beer tapping and tasting.

Fort Bliss has added new customs to the festival. All VIPs invited to the festival must conduct the band, take some snuff and drink from the "beer machine," a large mug which has several drinking straws and is usually used only at private parties.

If you attend Oktoberfest on Fort Bliss, you'll find it a wonderful experience. You'll be fascinated by the lederhosen worn by the men and the beautiful dirndl costumes worn by the women. That helps you almost feel like you're really in Germany. You'll find plenty of souvenirs for sale such as T-shirts, gingerbread hearts and beer mugs.

As in Germany, you'll find plenty of German beer, which, according to Bombosch, comes from a brewery in Auer, a town near Munich. Approximately 450 years old, the brewery is older than the festival itself. You can also find schladerer, which is German liqueur equivalent to tequila that comes in different fruit flavors. Non-alcoholic drinks are also sold.

And ready to satisfy hearty appetites, the festival offers bratwurst and knackwurst, potatoes, sauerkraut, pork, dumplings, sliced cheese and pretzels. You will have a good time working up your thirst and appetite by dancing to the music of the Bavarian band, perhaps the Lenggriesser Blasvalpelle, who played in 1992. They keep the young and old dancing with waltzes, folk music and, of course, polkas.

Last year the crowd was delighted by the performance of the local German Air Force soldiers dancing the Holtz Hacker Buam, which Jaeger says is known to Americans as the "Wood Choppers Ball." For this dance a log is brought onto the dance floor and chopped in rhythm to the music. At the end of the dance each of the six straws protruding from a mug, guzzles down the shared liter of beer and sings "En Prosit," a popular German beer-drinking song that is repeated throughout the day. Afterwards, the floor is swept, and the crowd continues singing and dancing in merriment.

Oktoberfest leaves its mark on El Paso, adding a different flavor to the list of things to do here in the Southwest. For those who have never experienced Oktoberfest in Munich, and for those craving a touch of home, Oktoberfest is a great place to have fun for the entire family. It's a wonderful way to experience some of the culture of Bavaria while learning about some of their customs. So eat, drink, and be merry. "EN PROSIT."

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