Really Old Stories and the Hidden Reason We Love Oktoberfest

People will show up to this week’s Oktoberfest Zinzinnati for a whole long list of reasons: the schnitzel, the chance to dance along to some sweet oom-pahs, to get their money’s worth out of the lederhosen they bought on a whim. It’s America’s largest Oktoberfest after all. Every September, over 500,000 show up in Cincinnati to celebrate the season in solidarity with our sister city of Munich. You could probably argue many of them are there for the beer. You wouldn’t be wrong. But there might be even deeper reasons why seasonal festivals, and this one in particular, draw crowds.

Festivals remind us that we are part of larger stories. They remind us of the long line of life that came before us. The first Oktoberfest goes all the way back to a marriage and a wedding party that wouldn’t quit. When Prince Ludwig I married Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, they let the party go on for a few weeks. It was such a monumental celebration, the people decided to use it as an excuse to drink beer together every autumn.

Festivals give us a chance to tap into practices and rhythms that hold us together. When Oktoberfest celebrations tap the first keg, they do it as a nod to a larger story. There are things we do because people have always done them. This particular festival is meaningful for people who see themselves as a part of the rich German heritage in Cincinnati and who have innately craved pretzels in the fall, outside of their own control. Like the other cultural or ethnocentered festivals around us, it’s a chance to celebrate part of their identity.

But in our best moments, these celebrations are part of something even larger than stories of origin: they celebrate the story of the present.

They give us a chance to shut down the streets and eat good food together. There’s something so visceral about crowding the streets and reminding ourselves that we are part of a whole collection of humans. It can be inconvenient and messy. We bump into each other and spill beer on each other. But it can also be beautiful. To know that the story starts before us and will go on after.

If we let it, festival seasons and beer tents can remind all of us how important it is to mark our days and our stories. If we want people to know they belong, and to celebrate the work or community they are a part of, we have to shut the streets down sometimes. We have to hit pause and be about what we’re about. We have to raise a stein, or a glass to what we care about. These impulses don’t have to happen in giant ways: They can be as small as a weekly post-meeting party. A monthly long lunch. An annual retreat. We have to keep it on the calendar and show up, even when it’s messy.

Prost!