FINGER PULLING IN BAVARIA
Updated: Jan 29
We were looking for something to do with my brother-in-law and his family. They were visiting us in Munich for a couple weeks. I was apprehensive when my wife suggested that we go to the finger pulling festival in Garmish-Partenkirchen. Like many who grow up in America, I have been duped by a father’s aroma releasing ruse. "Pull my finger," he'd command. I would oblige, even after I knew the ploy. Suddenly, the air would warm and family would run screaming from the room. "Ah, thanks, that's better.," dad would say. If I am being honest, I may have even carried on the tradition with my own kids.
So, envisioning a fest tent bursting with lederhosen clad, sauerkraut and beer fueled Bavarian farmers releasing nauseating fumes by pulling each other’s fingers is, undoubtedly, cause for alarm. Curiosity, however, got the better of me. After all, it is a local festival and if you know me, you know I can't pass up local color.
Upon arrival in Garmish, my fears were put at ease. Not only was the tent well ventilated, the only thing wafting in the air was laughter and a hint of competitive tension.
The finger pulling festival, known as Fingerhakeln in Bavarian, translates better as finger wrestling. Staged in Bavaria and parts of Austria, the "sport" of Fingerhakeln is a close cousin of arm wrestling. A test of strength, individual competitors square off against each other across a solid wooden table. Using only one finger, the one usually reserved for insulting reckless drivers on the autobahn, each competitor tries to pull his opponent's arm across the near edge of the table.
At the beginning of each bout, competitors sit on a stool on opposite sides of a sturdy table. They grip a leather ring with one finger each and steady themselves by placing their free hands in a vice grip on the edge of the table. Most wrestlers brace one shin against the side of the table for extra of leverage. In addition to the two competitors, there are five more people on the stage. Behind the table, between the two competitors and facing the audience stands a referee who will ensure fairness and ultimately declare a victor. Behind each competitor sits two catchers. The catchers function will become obvious as the bout reaches its conclusion.
When the referee is satisfied that the each wrestler is in a legal position and has a good one finger grip on the leather ring, he allows the bout to begin. The rivals pull and twist their arms. Their faces contort in agony and determination. Most bouts are over within seconds, but some fierce duels can last almost a minute. A bout ends when the hand of one wrestler is pulled across the opposite side of the table. Frequently, the force of the winning wrestler is so strong that his opponent is pulled up onto the table. As a result, the winning competitor falls backwards into the waiting arms of the safety catchers.
The competition for most o the day as the wrestlers tug their way to the finals of their weight class. Injuries are not uncommon and the tugging can be brutal, but the brotherhood and sportsmanship displayed between competitors runs deep. Many are just their to have fun. Some competitors, however, are very serious. A walk around the competition area will reveal the most competitive finger pullers chalking up their hands and warming up with weights.
It is not entirely clear how this sport started. Most origin stories claim that finger wrestling was used as a means of dispute settlement. Now, it has been organized into a regulated sport where the size of the table, leather strap and even the stools have been standardized.
Meanwhile, the rest of the tent is full of revelry, feasting and, since this is Bavaria, a lot of beer. Like all other folks fests, a local band plays and dirndl wearing women snarkily heft liters of beer to the audience and the competitors. This is the type of Bavarian tradition that made our family fall in love with the region. There is a festive sense of togetherness.
Now, who wants to pull my finger?