Matthias Schrader  /  AP
A woman sits between musicians during the second day of the Oktoberfest beer festival on Sunday in Munich, Germany.
updated 9/22/2010 7:22:56 PM ET 2010-09-22T23:22:56

It's a wedding party that got out of control: Two hundred years ago, Bavaria's Crown Prince Ludwig celebrated his royal nuptials with a big public bash that was such a hit it became an annual event — and came to be known worldwide as "The Oktoberfest."

His bride, Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghusen, gave her name to the Theresienwiese festival grounds upon which the event welcomes more than 6 million people a year for towering mugs of beer, oompah music and bright traditional costumes.

"I was made for this festival. I love it," crowed Meagan Aylward from Charlotte, N.C., while holding a mug of frothy Oktoberfest beer.

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The "Wiesn" — as Oktoberfest is locally known — was put on hold for various reasons during its 200-year history, including the two World Wars, the Franco-Prussian war, and cholera epidemics. That makes this year the 177th edition.

"The Wiesn has been part of my life ever since I started thinking," said Friedrich Steinberg, whose family has operated one of the tents on the 77-acre festival grounds in the center of Munich for 31 years.

"When we started having this tent, it was nowhere near so crowded, there were no days when you were forced to close the entrance" said the 40-year-old, who normally runs a downtown restaurant. Today, it's not uncommon for the tent to fill up shortly after it opens at 9 a.m., he said.

Oktoberfest usually runs 16 days, but this year's festival started Saturday and will run through Oct. 4 — a day longer than usual after the Munich city council made an exception for the 200th anniversary.

200 years of beer
The city also set up a special area with an exhibition of Oktoberfest history — replete with period costumes — as well as a beer tent serving a special brew, the "Jubilee Beer," for which Munich's six normally competing breweries joined forces in a historic beer truce.

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While the core of the Oktoberfest remains the same, with Dirndl-clad waitresses delivering 2-pint mugs of beer, its flavor has evolved over the years. A local festival with small beer gardens has mushroomed into a massive international event featuring about a dozen cavernous beer tents, some seating more than 10,000 singing, inebriated revelers at a time.

"Back in the old days, there were perhaps 200,000 or 300,000 people coming to the Oktoberfest, which then already was a record," said 67-year-old Peter Hartmann, who hasn't missed an Oktoberfest in 55 years.

"Now if you go out there at night, you can't choose your path freely anymore; you're pushed by the crowd in a certain direction," he complained.

But Martin Wimmer, who has been a regular visitor for 38 years, likes the change.

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"Now there are more young visitors, in the tents you also have modern music and the atmosphere has become even more relaxed," said the 62-year-old from nearby Rosenheim.

Wimmer, wearing traditional Bavarian Lederhosen leather shorts, said he makes sure to visit Oktoberfest at least eight to 10 times per year: "This year maybe even 12 times."

On any given festival day he'll drink up to eight mugs of beer.

That, however, is but a tiny drop of the 1.6 million gallons of beer that visitors down during the festival every year. They also consume some 500,000 chickens, 100 oxen and an unknown number of large doughy pretzels at the festival.

The festival's malty pale beer is made exclusively by Munich's breweries, and comes in 1-liter steins called "Mass," costing some euro9 ($12).

Pleasant fall weather
People crowd the huge shared tables in the tents and the outdoor beer gardens seeking the festival's famous "Gemuetlichkeit" — a word capturing Bavaria's special coziness and fondness for savoring the moment.

"Oktoberfest is the best place to be because it's one of the places that brings all the nations together," said 25-year-old Israeli ballet dancer Ilia Sarkisov. "They drink, have no war, have only peace. And that's what's it's all about."

However, Oktoberfest has been targeted with violence in the past — a bomb attack in 1980 attributed to the far right killed 13 people and injured 200 others. Last year, it was mentioned in a threatening message released by the Taliban, and security officials remain on alert.

This anniversary Oktoberfest has had a perfect start so far, with more than 1 million visitors over the weekend and pleasant fall weather.

Smoking has been banned inside the tents for the first time, but no major problems with the new regulation have been reported.

Waitress Hermine Roth was marking another anniversary — the 20th year she has been lugging beer steins, 10 at a time, to her customers' tables.

Despite the physical demands, the 64-year-old said she can't imagine not being part of it all.

"It really becomes an addiction," she said. "When it's over, you're already looking forward to the next Wiesn."

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