In Germany, a “Schützenfest” (or “marksmen’s festival”) is a time-honored tradition that is celebrated every year with much fervor, excitement, and – let’s be honest – a healthy amount of alcohol. Some of the most typical images associated with Schützenfest include:
Men in hats. Beer bellies. Carousing. Provincial towns. Good ol’ boys.
All associations which could very well explain the horrified, confused looks on my friends’ faces when I said I planned on visiting and writing about a Schützenfest for my blog.
“Oh God, what do you wanna go and do that for?”
The answer is simple: I want to try (as unbiasedly as possible) to discover the appeal of this cornerstone of German tradition. So, I set off towards the Sauerland region and the small town of Balve.
Once there, I will have exactly one weekend to take a long, hard look at the collective Schützenfest stereotypes and make up my own mind as to which are true. No sociological analysis, just a chance to let the impressions wash over me and paint their own picture. Totally subjective.
A friend of mine has family in Balve, so I had the good fortune of experiencing the Schützenfest from beginning to end with real, live locals.
I hadn’t been in Balve more than five minutes when I came face to face with the first stereotype:
1. Schützenfest is all about drinking
Scene 1: Breakfast at Grandma’s. Tasty goulash soup paired with what was probably the world’s sweetest cherry liqueur. My stomach and face cringe in unison.
With high spirits and full stomachs (a most necessary precaution for a day of drinking), we set off to meet the other members of the Marksmen’s Guild on a small street outside the “Padberg” pub. A full-bodied man in his marksmen’s uniform begins distributing beer vouchers according to what – at least to me – appears to be a totally incomprehensible system.
Then… nothing. Absolutely nothing. No music, no games. Nada.
After an hour, I ask what exactly it is we’re doing here.
“Drinking beer”, came the answer. Of course, how silly of me.
It begins to rain, but everyone stoically remains in their seats – until their glasses are empty, that is.
Scene 2: It’s time to march. We parade through every single street in the town before heading up what appears to be a never-ending country road until we reach the cave. No, not a bar called “cave”. A literal cave where the entire city of Balve comes together to celebrate. It’s like an episode of Cheers here, “Where everybody knows your name”. People exchange friendly smiles and heartfelt greetings with neighbors and friends.
Every new arrival is handed a nice, cold glass of beer free of charge. After this much-needed refreshment, we make our way to the bar deep inside the cave.
A few rounds and hours later, I ask several guild members: “Would Schützenfest be possible without alcohol?”
A moment of short reflection followed by a clear, unanimous response:
Clearly, drinking seems to be an essential element of this festival, something that brings everyone together. You won’t see anyone just order a beer for themselves. No, here you only hear people calling for another round, generously distributing a fresh glass to their neighbor. When one of the organizers told me how many hectoliters of beer are typically consumed during the fest, I was shocked.
But, despite what you (or I) may think: The consumption of alcohol is not the main focus here. It may be the silent lubricant that gets the party going, but it’s not officially celebrated. No one here aims to make a show of their impressive drinking skills. And although a large part of the approximately 2,000 visitors probably shouldn’t get behind the wheel, no one is stumbling. No one is getting sick in a corner. No one is falling asleep on a table. And even more remarkable: Lots of alcohol and lots of testosterone… but no fighting? Pretty impressive for a festival of this size!
Is the stereotype true?
Yes and no. Alcohol is important, but it’s not the heart and soul of this event. The locals love their beer, but they also know how to handle it. It’s a draw: 0-0.
2. Schützenfest means sweating in a tent
The Schützenfest in Balve has a huge advantage to many other German festivals: The celebrations don’t take place inside a plastic tent, but a million-year-old limestone cave 50 meters deep into a rock.
The cave has something magical about it. The longer you’re in it and the later the night becomes, the more you become one with the cave and totally forget whether its daytime or nighttime. In other words, it’s the “Berghain” of Sauerland. My conversations with the locals revealed that the cave also has a special meaning for the locals. A man, slightly red from singing, compared the architecture of the cave to the female uterus (the two arms of the cave come together to form a larger room where the revelers gather). According to him, the cave is not just a producer of stories, but also of children. Or at least what leads to them. “Without this cave, you wouldn’t exist”, he yelled across the room to his teenage son.
Is the stereotype true?
No. At least not in Balve. Here, the location is the highlight of the event. And a pleasantly cool one, at that.
The stereotypes fall behind: 0:1.
3. Schützenfest is only for small-town folk
Most visitors of the Balve Schützenfest have close ties to the town. Either they live in Balve or grew up there and moved away. At the very least, they have friends and family that live in town. This strong local connection makes the festival wonderfully authentic and less touristy.
Elsewhere in Germany, one usually meets up with old school pals during Christmas time; here, one meets them on the third weekend of July.
And although this festival is very much an insider event, guests seem to be a welcome sight.
The most distant guests this year are from Boston. Another group of Norwegians have been coming here every year for eight years – not least because the beer here is practically free, sold for a mere 1.30 € per glass. Everyone knows them, everyone says hi.
Even I feel welcome. Especially the older guests are happy to see an outsider interested in their festival. They share one anecdote after another: Of two young townsmen, for example, who drunkenly improvised the Sauerland’s first crosswalk in the middle of the night. Better safe than sorry, they said.
Another showed me his handmade beer carrier from the ‘70s. A guest from abroad had once wanted to order 1,500 of them, he liked them so much.
No, Balve is a festival for everyone: 0:2.
4. Schützenfest is a male domain
There are two prerequisites for participating in the marksmen’s parade:
1st: You have to wear a hat.
2nd: You have to be a man.
So, after the long march to the cave, you find yourself staring back into a sea of manly faces… at least at first.
When I saw the first women join the festivities, I asked a couple why members of the fairer sex can’t be there the whole time.
“Oh, today they’re more like decorative accessories”, the man replied with a wink. His wife protests. Then they smile and raise their glasses. Prost!
But then, something happened that shed some light on why a few of the guild members might look forward to a refuge without any distracting “accessories”:
Two lightly clad young ladies stroll past a group of retirees. One sighs, “God, you took away my ability… now please take away the urge.” Alles klar.
Is the stereotype true?
In this case, I’m leaning towards yes. 1:2.
5. Schützenfest ist ultra conservative
Faith. Tradition. Home.
Ok, the principles of the Marksmen’s Guild definitely make it sound like this stereotype would be true.
I can’t see any religious references.
Well, we’re drinking and dancing. And there’s a bit of flirting going on. If that’s tradition, then I’m all for it.
Anyone who’s ever been to Carnival in Cologne knows what local patriotism looks like: Big. Loud. Slightly obnoxious. But other than the obligatory (and rather self-ironic) Sauerland Song, I can find no trace of super patriotism here.
Well, except for one rather strange experience I had. As the music club played the national anthem during the taps ceremony, the entire cave sang along with all their might. Voices thick with emotion, the Sauerland and German flags waving in the background. Thunderous applause at the end.
It seemed a more authentic display of emotion than the media-effective, commerce-driven displays we’ve all seen at the beginning of important soccer games. Am I allowed to be moved by such genuine patriotism? That’s another question for another day.
But is the stereotype true?
Schützenfest is definitely conservative in the purest sense of the word (Latin conservare = get, keep); after all, it’s all about maintaining traditions. But there’s no air of philistinism. So, again, we end with a draw.
The score remains: 1:2.
6. Schützenfest is for trigger-happy weapon fanatics
First, let’s start with a little basic background information: Marksmen’s Guilds arose from citizens’ militias that were created long ago to protect their communities from looters and warring villages.
And since nowadays neighboring villages usually frown on beheadings and the looting business isn’t as profitable as it once was, these brave defenders of the city have now become… well, let’s face it… superfluous. Just like the armament of citizens.
Which is why I saw a grand total of one weapon during three days of Schützenfest. On the morning of the third day, the new “Schützenkönig”, or champion shot, is determined.
And we’re talking something that’s a far cry from a serious martial event. Round about 40 men alternate shooting a wooden bird with a fixed gun. The winner is determined more by chance than by skill: Whoever shoots the last piece of the bird to the ground is crowned champion shot for the year.
Before they started, some guild members intimated that the actual ritual has hardly any real meaning anymore – that it’s much more about the celebrations surrounding it.
The reaction to the decisive shot, however, begged to differ. As the bird fell, a large, cheering group of well-wishers surrounded the winner, tears of joy flowing down his face. He appears to have been waiting for this moment all his life.
No, weapons are irrelevant here. 1:3.
7. Schützenfest is just another name for a Schlagerparty
Ballermann’s Top 100 Hits is not part of my music collection. To me, Schlager music is synonymous with monotony and stupidity. (Of course, I’d be lying if I said I’d never sung along to Schlager music… but that’s beside the point.)
The music at the Balve Schützenfest, however, was actually quite a mix of styles:
Classic marching music on the way to the cave. The traditional playing of the taps.
A live bank playing chart favorites during the evening: “Abenteuerland” and “It’s My Life”, Höhner and Haddaway. You know, a typical mix that could work anywhere, from Flensburg to Lake Constance, Tokyo to New Yok. The people knew every song by heart, the band doesn’t seem to.
Then the climax: The marching band made its way into the room, pushing between man and table. We stood on the tables, watching the musicians over their shoulder – you feel right in the middle of it all. And then everybody begins in unison: “Sweet Caroline – oh, oh, oh…”
German Schlager, what is that?
Is the stereotype true?
No. Final score: 1:4.
Probably the usual stereotypes, right?
I’ll admit: Without ever having been to one, I was also very suspicious of this ancient German tradition. Which is exactly why I needed to see it for myself.
And as is so often the case, most of the stereotypes weren’t anywhere close to the truth. We are in Sauerland, not Berlin. Yes, it’s a bit more conservative.
But so many of the things that have given Schützenfest a bad name simply aren’t true – at least not in Balve.
No excessive drinking, no trigger-happy country bumpkins. Everything pretty relaxed and entertaining.
For me, Schützenfest is one thing above all else:
Strictly structured fun and nonsense.
What do you think about the Schützenfest tradition?
Can you relate to my experience?
And if you’ve never been before: Would you want to go now?
Share your thoughts in the comment section!
P.S. – If you’re still hungry for more Schützenfest, I highly recommend this documentary (in German):
Although my English isn’t too shabby, I believe you have to be a native speaker to truly master the finer nuances of a language. That’s why special thanks go out to Hannah Weinreich, who helps me translate most of this blog into English. If you need a German <-> English translator/editor, I highly recommend working with her.