The Schützenfest take place in our dorf (small town) in early June each year. For the past few years, my only knowledge of this event is that a large beer trailer appears, lots of green and white bunting plus flags are displayed around our village, a marching band rolls down our Straße (street) several times, sometimes accompanied by a crowd of finely dressed men and women, and a party is held in our city hall that goes well into the early morning hours. Also, there are guns and older men shooting a wooden eagle. This year I was determined to find the meaning of this annual event of rifles, beer and royalty!
What is a Schützenfest?
Imagine you live many, many years ago in a small village in Germany. You are separated from the larger cities, making you vulnerable to thieves seeking to plunder and loot. If you lived in one of these dorfs, or small villages, you could greatly benefit from having some sharp shooters to protect your home. Villages and towns formed organizations, which acted like local militia, to protect their homes from invasion. The men from these groups would train together and on occasion, hold competitions to prove who had the best shot. This shooting tradition has evolved over the years and today is a big celebration with multiple parades, a shooting competition, LOTS of drinking, a coronation, and a crazy fest that lasts all weekend long.
The men with rifles will take part in a competition to test their shooting abilities and see who has the best shot. This competition has always been a men's only tradition, but in recent times, women are slowly being included in some areas. In our little village, women have made the cut and participate each year in the competition. During the competition, there will be various shooting contests, culminating in the shooting of a wooden bird, mostly likely an eagle. There are prizes awarded for hitting different parts of the bird and the best shot is given an impressive necklace of medals and becomes the new Schützenkönig!
It may sound awesome to be crowned the King, but you may not want this honor after all. If you are crowned the King, you might need to take out a mortgage on your home as one of the responsibilities of being the new King is to buy the entire village a round of beer, which could get really expensive if you live in a larger city. However, it is quite an honor to win and many will display the wooden bird above their doorway to proclaim their success.
Some of the main players in the celebration are the men from the Vereine (organizations), who will typically be wearing their green Schützenverein jackets, the King, who will be wearing a black jacket and lots of medals, Alte Herren, wearing black suits, ties, top hats and carrying a weapon (typically a cane), the royal court and VIP's, and the marching band. Our village did a march around the city streets in the evening before the fest with the current King and than again at the crack of dawn the next morning. At 0600, we had the traditional awakening of the town by marching band. They first went to the firemans house, stopping for a round. Then they came to the house next to ours and took some shots of schnapps, had a beer and a cigarette, and moved on. They marched from 0600 until 1500, all the while drinking and playing. I was in awe of the massive amount of drinking some of these folks can handle while still managing to march and play music simultaneously. The tradition may seem a bit strange and outdated, but these sorts of displays are important because they break up the year, bring people together in celebration, and continue to honor significant traditions that have survived over the years.
The Biggest Schützenfest
The most notable and largest Schützenfest takes place in the city of Hannover. It's the biggest of its kind in the world and is ten days of celebration and tradition. There are over 250 fairground rides, the usual range of delicious foods fair sweets, stalls with games of chance, and of course the tents and stands of German beer. The landmark of the fairgrounds is one of the highest transportable Ferris wheels in the world at 60 meters high, holding up to 420 people in 42 cabins. The rifleman's procession is definitely the highlight of the fair. They have over 10,000 participants from Germany and around the world including dancers, entertainers, floats, organizations and 5,000 riflemen who travel along what is known as the longest parade in the world, at twelve-kilometers.