But Munich refuses to take it lying down
“Rahoo-doray-rahoo-doray, welcome Christmas, Christmastime!”
So sing the Whos in Dr. Seuss’ iconic The Grinch who stole Christmas, in which the evil-hearted Grinch steals all their presents, food and decorations. But the Whos refuse to let their holiday be ruined, forming a circle around the community Christmas tree to sing carols, regardless of the lack of trappings.
Munich is reacting similarly to the cancellation of its two-week long festival that, its name notwithstanding, always kicks off mid-September. In normal years, six million tourists descend upon the city to join the fun, but locals from Munich and surrounding Bavaria also attend every year. It’s a good thing, too, since they’re the ones leading the traditional songs in the beer tents. Tourists rely on the Münchner to initiate them into such Oktoberfest rituals. That’s half the fun — the other half being that amber liquid on the wooden table in front of you, of course.
To get a feeling for the deprivation that has hit Munich, imagine if your Christmas were canceled, a holiday that you’ve celebrated since childhood. Then one year, December comes and goes in a ho-hum fashion just like any other month. No trip home to see the family, no oversized Christmas dinner, no presents under the tree — and no traffic jams or family fights to grease the wheels of your imminent departure. All of this (or most of it at least) has always been the highlight at the end of the year.
This is how Munich is feeling right now. Because of the pandemic, the Oktoberfest, known locally as the Wies’n, the Bavarian word for the field where it is held, was canceled back in April. At the time, it was primarily the breweries and hotels that were worried while ordinary folk were still trying to figure out where to get masks and how to work the social distancing thing.
That has changed. The kickoff for the Oktoberfest that would have been held two weeks ago with much pomp and circumstance simply didn’t happen. The Theresienwiese fairgrounds where the Oktoberfest is usually held are completely empty.
In normal years, the assembly of beer tents and rides begins as early as July. The otherwise empty fairgrounds fill with enormous trucks spilling out giant metal parts to be turned into ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls, roller coasters and refreshment stands. Swarms of carpenters set up the beer tents, if that’s what you can call a two-storied structure accommodating tens of thousands of people, complete with a wooden floor and flush toilets. The air is filled with the sound of hammers and construction machinery.
But this year, the Theresienwiese is just a giant empty oval. When I took my Dad there years ago in the off season, I made him stand at the edge of this gaping hole in the middle of the city.
“What’s this for?” I asked him. “Can you guess?”
He stood for a while, gazing at the emptiness, then shook his head.
“I have no idea.”
He couldn’t figure it out. My Dad was a smart guy, but when the Oktoberfest is not on, it’s just bare dirt criss-crossed with nameless roads, like any county or state fairgrounds. And so it remains this year, much to the dismay of the city’s inhabitants.
So what’s a Münchner to do?
You take your cue from the Whos and celebrate anyway.
“Die Wiesn ist kein Ort, die Wiesn ist ein Gefühl!“
“The Oktoberfest is not a place, it’s a feeling!”
Traditional restaurants in the old city center have taken this motto to heart, creating their own “Oktoberfest meals” to help people overcome the unbearable pain of not being able to go the real thing and to help the restaurants overcome the unbearable pain of not earning any money for lack of tourists. It’s the same food you’d get in a beer garden, but when you’re wearing Tracht at the Oktoberfest it tastes better — and costs a lot more.
A Brotzeit Brettl or a snack board balanced on top of two glass beer mugs is heaped with traditional Bavarian appetizers: Obatzda cheese spread, red and white radishes, dark bread slices topped with butter and chives and giant pretzels. Then comes duck, chicken or pork; for vegetarians, there are Käsespätzle, Swabian noodles with cheese.
All dressed up with no place to go
Hard core Oktoberfester-goers are dressing up in the traditional Tracht of Lederhosen and Dirndl and making doleful treks to the empty fairgrounds. There they sit on the steps of the local version of the Statue of Liberty, the Bavaria, that usually looks down upon Bierleichen (literally beer corpses), people who had a wee bit too much of that amber liquid. This year, the grassy hillside is bare of bodies.
On the first weekend of the non-Oktoberfest, a handful of the beer tent waitresses and waiters turned up and held a picnic there, probably discussing how to make up for the thousands of euros that they would not be earning this year. Many of them usually take two weeks’ vacation to work at the Oktoberfest, choosing to earn money in their time off (a lot of it) instead of spending it at the beach.
Other people are celebrating at home in the backyard, on the patio or balcony, inviting a few friends to enjoy traditional Bavarian food, decked out in Tracht, of course. At least the weather has played along this year. It’s been warm enough to accommodate outside parties. This is not always the case, as there were years when I wore my winter coat over my Dirndl inside the unheated beer tents.
Kiddie cars and carousels
Since the fairgrounds are off limits, many rides that would have been set up at the Oktoberfest have instead been placed at different public spaces around Munich. Chief among these is the Trachtival, (Tracht plus carnival, very clever) on the grounds of a former factory. It has since been refashioned into a collection of high-rise buildings called Werksviertel or working quarter.
In other words, social distancing rules have been extended to rides. This is Germany, after all. They do things very thoroughly here.
People wearing traditional garb are also being offered discounts at museums and restaurants to encourage people to get into the spirit.
Just like the Whos, the Münchner are managing to maintain their tradition, even if it’s a smaller version. No one dares to imagine that the virus might still be around in a year’s time, but who knows for sure?