First things first: Kerwa is very specific for the south of Germany, especially Bavaria. If you cross the border from Belgium to Germany the people will have no clue what Kerwa is. Their fifth season is Karneval instead. Also the Kerwa traditions vary a lot from town to town, so this will be a very incomplete overview. If you want to know what fun things you can do at Kerwa (besides getting drunk and party, that’s a given) then just scroll to the end of the article.
The word Kerwa is fränkisch (=dialect from the region Franken) for “Kirchweih”, which translates to church anniversary. Every church has their own anniversary depending on the day of their consecration. That's why Kerwa season is from the end of April to the beginning of November. Already in the middle ages people would come together after the holy mass to celebrate and somehow this small getting-together after church became the weekend of the year with the most cases of alcohol poisoning. Nowadays Kerwas are seen as a nice family activity and a nice drinking activity. Almost every town has its own Kerwa, in bigger towns even each district will have its own. The county will usually bring out a calendar and you can get drunk in a different town every weekend!
Oktoberfest is not a Kerwa. I have to admit, the principle is basically the same. You have a tent with beer benches and music and around that you have all kinds of booths with different food, candy and games like shooting or drawing lots. There will also be fun rides like a Ferris wheel or Autoscooter. The difference is mostly the history but also the traditions surrounding it. Oktoberfest is a “Volksfest”, which is a seasonal celebration (usually spring or autumn.) Plus: it’s completely overrated and overpriced. If you want a less crowded and more authentic experience, smaller Kerwas (or Volksfeste) are the way to go.
Kerwa usually lasts from Thursday to Monday, but it depends on the size of the town. In my hometown Kerwa starts with a parade through the city lead by the marching band. It ends at the beer tent, where the major will tap the first barrel of beer. In the afternoon a group of boys (Kerwasburschen) will put up a decorated spruce (Kerwasbaam). Bigger towns sometimes have bigger groups with girls (Kerwasmadli) as well, that will do traditional dances around the spruce at end of every Kerwa called “Betzn austanzen”. It literally means “dancing out the sheep” (Betzn) so you can imagine it as a traditional dance battle, where the winner gets a sheep (yes, an actual live sheep!) For visitors dressing in traditional clothing (Dirndl for girls, Lederhosen for boys) is optional, but for the Kerwasburschen and –madli it is mandatory. On the Sunday of the Kerwa’s weekend there will be “Frühschoppen”, which translates to “early stuffing” but it’s actually just an excuse to drink beer at ten in the morning and eat Bavarian sausage (Weißwurscht.)
Should you ever get the chance to visit a Kerwa, here are is a little TO-DO-LIST:
1. Dress up! You don’t have to buy Dirndl or Lederhosen but you should at least try to stick to the traditional theme. A plaid blouse or button-down and maybe some traditional looking accessories (anything with Edelweiss or Lebkuchenherz on it) are enough.
2. Eat all the food! In the beer tents they serve the best traditional fränkisch dishes. If you want something else (or you’re vegetarian) you can go to one of the booths outside: Grilled chicken, currywurst, kebab, pizza, langos or just stick to Belgian fries – anything goes.
3. Get dessert! Crêpes, chocolate covered fruits or roasted almonds are the classics, but there is also candy floss, popcorn and all sorts of gummibears.
4. Get a Lebkuchenherz! It’s the one good thing that came from Oktoberfest. The heart-shaped gingerbread used to be decorated with little poems back in the 80’s when it was invented. It’s something you don’t buy for yourself, so either you get someone to buy you one or you buy one for a person you love. Or a person you hate (they also sell them with insults) and you can even get them personalized.
5. Take a ride! If you want to go on one of the fun rides, you should maybe do it before you get drunk. I’m not saying it’s more fun, but it minimizes the chance of puking… Or to stay on the safe side: Buy some lots or go to one of the shooting booths! There you have the chance of winning some cool stuff like life-sized stuffed animals or at least a crappy plastic rose.
6. Beer. Like the Belgians, we take our beer very seriously. Franken is the region in Germany with the most breweries per square kilometer. Some towns may not have a supermarket or school, but they have at least one brewery. If you order a beer you should be aware that you will get a “maß”, a whole liter in a jug. If you don’t like beer you can also get a maß of “Radler”, which is beer with lemon soda. Just remember: Never lose or break the jug. When you buy the beer you pay a fee (min. 5€) for the jug that you will get back, when you return it. Or you can just keep it as a souvenir (they make very nice tea mugs.)
7. Dance! There will be live music in the beer tent so find a bench or table to dance on. There will be quite a lot of German songs, some traditional in dialect, some “Schlager” but also classics from the 80’s and 90’s and popular charts music. Pretty much all the embarrassing songs you would never admit you know the lyrics to when you’re sober. Just try not to fall down!
I’ hätt gern a Maß! (One beer, please!)
Prost, Ihr Säcke! – Prost, du Sack! / Auf die Kerwa! – Zack, zack, zack! (Cheers!)
Live music from Schlager-Star Peter Wackel at Bergkirchweih 2013 in Erlangen, Germany.