Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest celebrates a very narrow aspect of German culture: the Bavarian music, clothing, dance, food and drink of Munich. (Mike McCulloch/CBC)

Kitchener-Waterloo's two-week Oktoberfest Bavarian festival isn't a celebration of true German culture, says German studies professor James Skidmore. Instead, he says, it celebrates a "tiny aspect" of German culture, and has become more of a local festival.

"You can compare it a little bit to St. Patrick's Day. People don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day because they want to celebrate Irish culture. They want to drink, basically," Skidmore, a professor of German and Slavic studies at University of Waterloo, told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris Monday.

"With Oktoberfest it's a similar kind of thing. We celebrate it whether we have a German background or not. We become interested in German things that week.

"I don't think we should try to see it as a German festival."

Oktoberfest celebrates Bavarian, not German, culture

The Kitchener-Waterloo festival is marking its 45th year, and is a much smaller version of the Munich festival which draws 7 million visitors a year.

"The fact is, Oktoberfest in Germany, Oktoberfest is a very localized festival. It really is a Munich festival. It's not a nation-wide festival, it's not a national festival. It's not celebrated in other parts of Germany."

He says the last big wave of German immigrants came to Kitchener-Waterloo after World War II, but the vast majority aren't from Bavaria.

"Why would they then become interested in hosting a festival that's not really from their actual locale in Germany?" asks Skidmore.

"Imagine you're a German in the K-W area in the 1950s and the 1960s. It was a period of time where you couldn't show a lot of pride in being German. So the festival, the idea of having Oktoberfest was, I think, a way of expressing some pride in being German that was not focused on the German-ness, the nationalism. It was focused more on people getting together and having a good time; dancing and drinking and eating and doing all these things that are just fun."

Oktoberfest keeps German cultural centres alive

According to Statistics Canada, there are more people in Waterloo Region who speak Portuguese at home than German.

And without the K-W Oktoberfest, Skidmore says German cultural centres like the Schwaben Club and the Concordia Club would struggle to survive.

"The Concordia club was the oldest club and it was founded in the 1880s, it started as a singing group and then it became a club," explains Skidmore.

 "What's happening now is their members are much older. So the clubs don't have the membership they used to have. The clubs here, without Oktoberfest, I don't think many of the clubs would survive. They need that full week of income."

Still, Skidmore says it is the thought that counts, and maybe the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest will give people from other cultural backgrounds a sampling of German heritage.

"You wouldn't want to think 'if I go to Oktoberfest I've learned about German culture.' I've learned about one tiny aspect of German culture. A fun and interesting aspect of German culture, but still a small part of it."