The Oktoberfest dates back to a royal wedding celebration. The public horse race in 1810 was attended by more than 40000 spectators. Read the whole story.
The more than 200-year-old success story of the largest and greatest funfair of the world dates back to October 17, 1810, when a horse race was held in order to publicly celebrate the marriage between crown prince Ludwig and Therese Charlotte Luise Friederike Amalie von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. This is the part at least some of today’s Oktoberfest visitors still know. But how many of the thousands of Italians, who visit each year, know that in fact one of them was one the inventors of our favorite festival?
Wedding Celebrations in the City
After Therese’s move to Munich already almost appeared like a procession, which was cheered by thousands of Bavarians, her wedding with crown prince Ludwig on October 12 was celebrated for five days. The wedding date was not chosen arbitrarily: October 12 is the name day of Ludwig’s father, king Max I. Following the strenuous founding of the new kingdom, an occasion to present itself as such, suited the royal family just well. In the evening of October 12, the wedding took place in the Court Chapel of the Munich Residenz, followed by a great public celebration an evening later.
The whole city of Munich was illuminated for this occasion. Both public squares as well as private buildings were extensively decorated with lights. Putting up decorations at the Max-Joseph Square, took even six weeks. Illuminated paintings and writings were installed at many buildings; wealthy citizens, hosts and businessmen competed for the most dazzling decorations. Banker and Oktoberfest initiator Andreas von Dall’Armi, for example, embellished the façade of is home at the Rindermarkt with a statue of Bavaria including a lion.
The whole city was out and about. The upper 6000, the members of the national guard and their families, to be precise, were invited to dance and eat in four restaurants. Everyone else was entertained outdoors: at the Marienplatz, the Promenadenplatz, in the Neuhauser Gasse and at the Anger, 32065 buns, 3992 pounds of Swiss cheese, 400 kilos of mutton, 8120 cervelat sausages and 13300 pairs of smoke sausage were distributed for free, accompanied by 232 hectoliters of beer and four hectoliters of Austrian white wine. 150 musicians played and two theaters opened for free and already one day early, the Israelite community organized a feast for prisoners.
After multiple elitist private parties, the rest of the townspeople could look forward to a folk festival only four days later – the horse race beneath the hill of Sendling.
The Organization of the Horse Race
Following the legend, coachman Franz Baumgartner, who served his time in the cavalry division of the national guard at that time, made the proposal to honor the royal couple with a horse race on September 28. His major, Andreas von Dall’Armi, a native of Trento, is said to have been very delighted with the suggestion and forwarded it to king Max I Joseph on October 2. On October 5, king Max approved the idea, which meant that that major event had to be organized in only 12 days. Right from the start of the planning, the festival was perceived as a national matter. The fact, that is was geared towards the people of a nation and not a religious group, was a novum at that time.
Ethnologist Gerade Möhler questioned this legend of the bottom-up founding of the Oktoberfest in her dissertation for three reasons:
1. Chronological inconsistence: Not only would the king’s approval within three days have been extraordinarily quick and curiously, invitations were already printed and given to dignitaries one day early. Also, the costumes, children wore at the festival, probably had to be specifically produced, which is at least ambitious ins such short time.
2. Baumgartner is said to have brought his idea forward while exercising with the national guard. As they were not planned to be part of the celebrations except for the horse race, the question arises, why the national guard exercised in September, if not for the horse race?
3. Dall’Armi motivates the festival in his submission with the advancement of the Bavarian horse breeding. Opposed to that, the horse race was eventually not mainly performance-oriented, though.
Consequently, Möhler is sceptic, if the Oktoberfest really accidentally developed from a horse. It seems rather realistic that the young kingdom was prescribed a national festival in order to give the royal family a possibility to present itself as such.
The Race Day
The celebrations of October 17, 1810 began in the Bürgersaal in the city center with a mass. Afterwards, the national guard and the regular military divisions accompanied the wedding party to the still nameless Theresienwiese, where a procession of 16 children couples in different traditional costumes started the event. After a choir performance of students of the “Feiertagsschule”, the awaited horse race was finally about to start.
Out of 30 starting horses, it was the horse of the aforementioned Franz Baumgartner, which completed the three laps on the 11565 Bavarian feet (3370 meters) long course first. In front of 40000 spectators, Baumgartner was awarded a gold medal by minister Maximilian Josef, Count von Montgelas. Impressed by the great success of the festivities, king Max I Joseph requested to name the fairground “Theresens Wiese” (Therese’s meadow) after the bride.
The only thing, which actually took place on the meadow itself was the actual race. The spectators witnessed it from the Sendling hill and also drank beer and wine and ate at the stands which were temporarily built there. The only building on the meadow was the royal pavilion in front of the stand. As there wasn’t much time to design and construct a tent for the royal family, a Turkish audience tent, acquired by Elector Max Emanuel in the Ottoman wars in 1687, was reused for this purpose. Both the military and the national guard secured the pavilion and the race track.
Why a Horse Race?
Certainly, it’s not obvious to celebrate a wedding with a horse race, but Munich had a special relation to festive horse races. Starting in 1448 the “Scharlachrennen” (Scarlet Race) was held in front of the Karlstor. It was only in 1786, 24 years prior the first Oktoberfest, that this tradition ceased and therefore still well-remembered. After Elector Karl Theodor failed to revive the race in 1793, the Oktoberfest race is seen as a sequel to the Scarlet Race.