FORT KNOX, Ky. —It’s not often I get to dust off my Alpine dirndl dress and scream “Prost!” with fellow friends, family members and random strangers.
Oktoberfest is now that time for me.
It has become a way each year for people of all walks of life to come together and support a community. The Fort Knox version is no different. The rich German heritage in our community here brings servicemembers, retirees, family members, civilians, veterans, and anyone together to create new memories or re-live old ones.
It’s always been impressive to me that the impact of this tradition is so strong that it is recreated in many communities all over the world. Growing up with a German grandmother, I always thought I knew about German traditions in general. I later realized my grandma had exposed me to the culture within her region.
She has always made it clear that she’s not Bavarian. I began to realize what that actually meant at the age of 11.
When we lived in Germany the first time, my friend’s grandmother had gifted me my first handmade dirndl at that age. I knew that it was a traditional dress, but that’s about it. Thinking back on it, I have come to realize that while Oktoberfest is traditionally Bavarian, the traditions associated with it are often assumed to be German.
I didn’t quite understand the meaning behind this dress until I attended my first Oktoberfest at the age of 16.
I spent days trying to find the perfect dress, researching the do’s and don’ts of “Oktoberfesting,” and just trying to figure out what I was getting myself into. I was filled with tons of questions.
“What kinds of dirndls do most girls my age wear?” and “Do you tie the dress on the right or left side to signal that you’re single?” and “How on earth am I going to stand being in a hot, loud, crowded tent for four hours?” and “Do I have to drink a lot of beer? How is my body even going to retain that much?” and, of course “Do you just eat the half rotisserie chicken plain or can I at least get a sauce with it?”
I had been to many German festivals already, but nothing that required this much planning or attention to detail. At least, that’s what I thought. There are some things you just can’t prepare for.
Overthinking is pointless because it’s about being along for the ride. I learned quickly that if everyone at your fest table is standing on benches, it’s in your best interest to do the same.
The absence of peer pressure is one of the most enlightening aspects of Oktoberfest. You are there to enjoy the moment, regardless of who is standing next to you or what indescribable acts you might witness – (we’ll avoid those details for now).
Take personal space, for example. American culture places a high value on it. There is no personal space to speak of at a proper Oktoberfest. It is virtually thrown out the window in favor of surrendering to the experience.
The beautiful thing about any and all festivals in Germany is, there doesn’t have to be a reason to celebrate anything. Springtime – “Yay, let’s gather around the maypole!” Summertime. “Yay, let’s celebrate the onion!” Harvest time – “Yay, let’s raise a toast at Oktoberfest!” Wintertime – “Yay, let’s drink hot glühwein at the Christmas market!” Wednesday – “Yay! It’s Wednesday!”
Yes, of course Oktoberfest has a deeply rooted history; but the truth is people come from all over the world to let loose, be silly and enjoy a liter or four of beer simply because, well, they want to. It’s about friends – and family. And friendship.
So, I eventually learned to stop asking “why?” when it came to German festivals, celebrations or traditions. The true answer to “why?” is that life is too short to not share as many moments of celebration as you can.
The only real question to ask is “when?” because if a German is inviting you to something – like a get-together on a Wednesday – there is a very big chance you will walk away from that experience with food and drink in your belly and joy in your heart.
I have trudged through a forest on the eve of Easter in the cold rain, with the goal of getting to the local airstrip and back, simply because it was a village tradition – and also because my German neighbor asked me to join. I have dressed up in a cow costume, while getting the world’s hardest pieces of square candy chucked at my forehead, simply because I was told that “it’s a part of the Fasching experience.” I have spent four hours in a massive tent screaming the words to “Sweet Caroline,” in three layers of clothing, holding a beer stein in front of me until my arms shook just to win a contest; and I have witnessed hordes of people zombie walk out of beer tents at the end of a four-hour reservation.
After reading the previous excerpt, it may sound like an overwhelming experience, and you might be saying to yourself, “Why would I ever want to do that?” That’s the magic in it, though. I found myself returning year after year, not just because I was craving one of those massive soft pretzels, but because it’s very rare to be able to participate in that kind of ridiculousness.
It’s freeing in a way to say, “Why wouldn’t I?”