I’m not a German man so I shouldn’t drink like one: Surviving a German Schützenfest

By now I’m sure you know how much I love small-town Germany (if you’re new to the blog you can read about it here), so I was more than thrilled to step off the plane and onto a train headed for the Sauerland. I was even more thrilled to find that it was 90° and sunny when I got there. And even more than that, it stayed like that the entire weekend.

If you’re at all familiar with the Sauerland then you’ll recognize that this is a pretty big deal. There are two things that should come to mind when you think of summertime in the Sauerland. One is its unpredictably bad weather and the other is Schützenfest. But with uncharacteristically awesome weather at my side it was much easier to focus on surviving enjoying the weekend’s Schützenfest. 

saturday-afternoon-royal-schutzenfest-parade


There’s a loud crack, the sound of metal splintering wood, and the wooden bird falls to the ground. The crowd of onlookers erupts and the band begins playing. Everyone rushes to offer their Herzliche Glückwünsche to the new Schützenkönig who now sits hoisted on shoulders.

You’ve just witnessed the coronation of a king. Beers all around! Or maybe a Radler, after all this is a marathon not a sprint.

shooting for the könig
Welcome to your first Schützenfest, the most curious tradition of small-town Germany! It’s a three-day party that separates the German from the Ausländer, a test of endurance (and of liver function), and the most German thing you’ll ever be invited to do. One minute you’re marching in the opening parade, two rows snaking towards the Schützenhalle trying only somewhat successfully to match your steps to the drum beats, and the next it’s the final day and you’re sitting on the floor sandwiched between two Germans and rowing an imaginary boat.

typisch sauerland

Behind the beer, the crowd surfing and the Schlager music, there’s more tradition in a Schützenfest than you’d realize. It’s a throwback to the Middle Ages, to a time of bandits and men joining together in Schützenvereinen to protect their towns.

Though there are no longer groups of bandits roaming the German countryside, the members of these shooting clubs still take the traditions very seriously. You can hear it in the music that they play, see it in the extravagant parades, in their devotion to the club rules, and the sheer number of members that still join these clubs.

jungschützenkönig u. königinin the schützenhalle
Just like with the rest of my German-life, coming up with a strategy for Schützenfest has taken a lot of getting used to. Last year I went to two of the dozens of festivals and I crashed and burned. Hard. The American in me was ready to check out around 2am and the girlfriend in me wanted everyone to like her so she had a hard time saying no.

But you do learn fast. And it does get easier to drag yourself out of bed in the mornings. From last year’s pathetic performances, I’ve learned the one Schützenfest rule to live by: I’m not a German man so I shouldn’t drink like one.
the horror that is U-Boat

the horror that is U-Boat

Beware of the U-Boat…

With that realization Schützenfest gets so much easier. You’ll know to drink slowly, to take breaks, and to eat food a lot. To always, under every circumstance, refuse an U-Boat because one will turn into four and you’ll hate yourself tomorrow. You’ll let people tease you about drinking Radler and you won’t care because you know it saves lives. And you’ll refuse to exen unless of course someone challenges you to exen oder Elsper, in which case chugging is acceptable because those’re fighting words!

And on Day Four, when your entire body hurts and you’re so tired you can’t talk, don’t feel bad for feeling like crap. Everyone’s feeling it. The Germans are just better at hiding it, years of practice and genetics I guess. All you can do is grab a beer -or maybe a Radler– because there are 12 hours to go and it’s the only thing you can do.

By the end of the fourth night, which will come at the very reasonable midnight hour, you won’t be able to feel your feet or do much more than sway on the dance floor. The Schützenhalle will be emptier than you’ve ever seen it; there’s beer and remnants of broken glasses on the floor and someone will bring in giant tree branches (for a reason that still remains a mystery to me). Typisch Montag everyone says. Congratulations, this is what it looks like to be a Schützenfest champion.

 how to survive schützenfest
our-kings-and-queens

It sounds exhausting, it definitely is, but it’s the most fun you’ll have all summer. The days usually play out in the same way; you’ll start at 10am, there’s more marching, dancing and singing, Currywurst for lunch (and probably dinner), and you’ll try and fail to keep up with what number beer you’re on. And then it’ll be 5am.

But none of this is what makes Schützenfest great. The best memories are the simplest ones, made great because of the people. I’ve always said that Sauerländers are the friendliest people in the world -and I’m a Southerner and we know nice- but each time there’s a get-together like this I see that more and more. Whether it’s someone (with some serious patience) who waits for me to string my German sentences together and then pretends they’re good, or someone that drags you onto the dance floor to row an imaginary boat with them. I feel incredibly lucky to call the Sauerland, Burbecke specifically,  home.

the schützenfest survivors

Schützenfest champions

For anyone planning a trip to Germany: do your research, find a Schützenfest, befriend a German, and experience a really German tradition. Have you ever been to a Schützenfest? What’s your favorite thing about Germany?

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70 thoughts on “I’m not a German man so I shouldn’t drink like one: Surviving a German Schützenfest

  1. Very cool! I had never actually heard of a Schützenfest before, but after looking it up, I see that the biggest one is actually in Hanover, which is a very short (and free as a student) train ride from where I live. It looks like it starts tomorrow too, but I think I’ll have to wait until next year 🙂

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    • It’s pretty hit-or-miss finding even Germans that know about them (their locations are all over the map), but I have heard of the one in Hanover before! I’m sure it’d be crazy with all the different traditions from all the different clubs. I’d say it’s a must for sure next year! There’s also a giant European Schützenfest this year in Germany that we’re trying to squeeze in; I’m sure that’ll be insane.

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      • Caitlin, you should now the big Schützenfeste are not as good as the small ones. There is not that feeling of a little town Schützenfest. So here is a tip from somebody out of the Sauerland. You just look up for the one in Röhrenspring. It is a little town with just some houses, They build up a tent in the forrest and do there Schützenfest up there. Just Google it.

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      • Dennis, I can see your point. This last festival is my favorite because it’s smaller and I know so many people there; the people really make the whole festival for me. I’m sure the Röhrenspring fest is very cool and very traditional and it’s nearby, too! But I’ll have to wait until next year since it’s the first fest of the season. Thanks for the tip!

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  2. If you want to see a big traditional SF go to Olpe (wich is also part of the wonderful Sauerland). I think it’s the best and biggest (i guess around 30.000 drunken people?!) in our region. 4 days of fun and drinking like there is no tomorrow! nice expose btw 😉

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    • True, Olpe is not far from here and its the SF with the highest staus. Don’t try to go for the king title unless you bring real money along lke 50-60.000 euros. Other vereins want to make this more accessible to everybody, and it wil cost you about 700-1000…

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      • yes Olpe seems to be the extreme, but when I ask what its for nobody can tell me 🙂 .. I knoe the king buys the dresses fot the ladies and the food for the people in his hofstaat. And occasionally lots of beer.. but then still 60K is a lot!

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      • This town is like my second home, my entire family on the maternal side lives there and i participate every 4th year when this event comes together. I grew up in another little village aprox 50km east. I read you live in Marburg, this is where my best friend studies, i`ll be there in the end of july.

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      • That’s where we are now, but we’ll be moving back here to the Sauerand for the summer in a couple weeks and then onward to Berlin, hopefully, to make a Masters. But Marburg is a cool city, I hope you enjoy it! Best, Caitlin

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  3. Hey Caitlin,
    i’m a german from a little town in the Sauerland and one of my friends shared this post on facebook.

    I loved to read it twice and again and again. As a german, it isn’t easy to explain the sense of our Schützenfeste to strangers, but you find the right words. I had to smile several times. (The floor of the Schützenhalle is the cleanest of the whole year after rowing the boat.)

    I just survived a Schützenfest at the last weekend. Your description as a marathon is absolutly right. My liver ist still crying. Even as a Sauerländer, i fall back to a Radler not only once at the weekend.

    Like “dennis” writes below, the big Schützenfeste aren’t as good as the small ones in the little towns and Dörfer (called “Kaff” in Sauerland). Here it’s more like a family and not so commercial.

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    • Hi Flo,
      I’m so happy that you think I did a good job of capturing the spirit of Schützenfest -that was definitely my goal! It’s such an awesome tradition and a big part of summer in the Sauerland I wanted to get it right.

      The small-town, family Schützenfeste are definitely my favorite. Like I wrote in the article, what makes the Sauerland so special is its people and you get to meet so many awesome Sauerländer at the smaller ones.

      Maybe we’ll end up at the same Schützenfest and we can share a Radler. Thanks again for reading and I’m happy you liked it!

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  4. Sorry to intervene but events of this name and kind as a whole are locally limited to Lower Saxony. At least they are not common in Hesse and Bavaria.
    There are events celebrating extended alcohol drinking in both counties too but those events have nothing to do with the sports gun clubs. (In rural Bavaria, mostly the firefighters are known to host such events which seems to be as irresponsible to me. But even those events are limited to one afternoon and evening/night.)
    The exclamation of a king (or rather three of them) for a year on the other hand is common in all German gun clubs and it mostly requires real shooting qualities – just like a real competition. Shooting is an approved sports discipline in Germany and of course the contestants attending national and international championships do also train themselves (and others) in gun clubs.

    If you should ever come to Munich feel free to let me know in advance.

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    • You’re right. The Schützenfest in the Sauerland is more traditional with music corps, parades and drinking. The most participants never had a gun in there hands, unless at Schützenfest. Some of the clubs have shooting facilities, but only few are using them professionell.

      Outside of the Sauerland (or Westfalen) the Schützenfest mostly belongs to the professional shooting clubs.

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    • Hi Hesting, I appreciate the clarity and your comment. 🙂 I’m always up for learning more about traditions across Germany. The exact locations of Schützenfest made defining the tradition for this post a little tricky because I think you can find types of SF in a number of places (i.e. Lower Saxony, the Sauerland, Bavaria, and maybe even elsewhere). I have heard that certain SF do have more tradition to them than others, so I’m sure there are some clubs that take the shooting aspect very seriously.
      From what I saw, the clubs in the Sauerland are very much Schützenfest with shooting competitions and clubs. Best, Caitlin

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  5. Thanks for sharing your experiences of your great time im Sauerland! 🙂 I grew up in one of those small towns im Sauerland and miss those Schützenfeste even though I’m still in Germany. Nothing like home! Lower Saxony really tries to have good ones, but nahhh to big, to crowded, to much! I love the small SchüFe. Everybody knows each other and if not – you get to know them 😀

    “I’ve always said that Sauerländers are the friendliest people in the world” I guess that is an amazing quote. There are tons of nice people in Germany but the Sauerland is special.

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    • Knowing everyone there with you is my favorite thing about the SchüFe I’ve been to as well! And I’ve heard from a lot of people who agree the smaller ones are better, more traditional and less commercial. As a foreigner, everyone at these SchüFe in the Sauerland have made me feel so welcomed and included so that quote is very true. They do a great job of making me feel included all the time. It’s home away from home. 🙂

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  6. Very recognizable. Being Dutch and coming on vacation in the Sauerland (Saalhausen) every year (only 3,5 hrs drive) for years, I heard about the Schützenfest but never was there in that period. Till I met my german girlfriend there, I was introduced to this fest! Being already hardened in the local drinking traditions I managed well and woooooow best party of the year,incredible!! so much fun it was awesome. When I was already half drunk, my father-in-law, who is a leading figure in the Schützenverein, handed me an application form to join the verein, which of course I could not refuse. So now I’m a member too, very accepted as a foreigner (after all I’ve been around more then 20 years) and get to parade along with my brothers in arms with a uniform. Last year my father in law managed to shoot the ‘Kaiser’ title (the emperor, the king of the shooting kings) and me and my girlfriend were in the ‘hofstaat’ (the court of the emperor with all the women parading in gala dress) that was really special and impressive. Never was a tourist attraction lol. But I must say, tho its cool and fun it will never get in my blood like it does with the locals, who will skip anything else not to miss it. I would not have a problem when something else comes in between.. but my girlfriend will prevent that from happening 😀 !

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    • Everyone I’ve met at the SF have been so welcoming, too! I completely agree that it’s not in our blood like it is for the Sauerländer -I’d skip a day if I had to as well (or at least show up late 😉 ). Do you know when the Kirchhundem SF is? I love hearing about fun ones to visit!

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      • Kirchhundem is somewhere beginning of august, this year 7-9th I reckon. Special too because my brother in law lives there,he is an old-schützenköning there.

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  7. Hey caitlin. Very nicely put. I had the opportunity to partake my share of drinking while I was in Germany last year. Needless to say, you have covered the entire experience verbatim.
    I survived 4 of these endurance tests (Something, I am proud of :P)

    I hope you had a lot of fun. Out of curiosity, which village did you attend the schutzenfest?

    have fun 🙂

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    • Thank you very much. 🙂 Schützenfest are always fun (and exhausting)! I’m with you -surviving one of these, let alone four, is a great accomplishment. This was the SF for Oberelspe. Best, Caitlin

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      • Ah! I was there for SF previous year:) Very lively town with lovely people.
        I miss them all. Wish you have many such awesome experiences and do visit India sometime in the future.
        Regards

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  8. Hey Caitlin!
    I just found your article on facebook! Absolutely hilarious and spot-on 🙂 The Schützenfest in Oberelspe is always a highlight and I’m glad you also enjoyed the music. If you ever feel like rowing an imaginary boat again, here’s the tune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44ZF_B5ijfo
    In case you happen to be in Oberelspe at Schützenfest time next year, feel free to join us on stage and sing along!

    Until then, enjoy your travels as much as you can!
    Greetings from the Sauerländer Tanzband “Veischede Live”!

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    • You’re a lifesaver! I’m always looking for songs that I know, but can never remember their names. I’m glad you liked it. I had a blast living through it and writing it. The music was great! And I will absolutely take you up on your offer next year. I’m going to start learning the song now. Best, Caitlin

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  9. Hey Caitlin! I loved to read this about our Schützenfest! You have to visit Schützenfest in garbeck and balve and drink some U-Boote with me 🙂

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  10. Timing is perfect, looking forward to this year’s Schützenfest in my village next weekend 🙂

    It is even more fun when you are in a marching band and you play a Schützenfest other than your own one, because you’re making music with people you like and also because you basically get free drinks all the time while you’re playing. And because nobody cares if you bring your own stuff. So you’re already like 75% drunk when you’re finally free to celebrate 🙂

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    • I have so much respect for the bands because I’m sure it’s hard work! All the marching and playing and drinking, I’d be dead. I’m glad you liked the post. 🙂 And I hope you’re ready to enjoy your SF this weekend. Best of luck! Best, Caitlin

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      • Actually, it seems to get easier while you’re drinking, pretty weird, huh? 😀 Of course I’m ready für SchüFe after going to every single one around here that I could get to 🙂 Maybe you want to drop by in Gleidorf this weekend so we can drink a beer or two together, it’s not that far from Burbecke 😉 But be warned that we’re the strangest bunch of people you’ll ever meet… 😀
        Cheers and see you maybe, Jonas

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  11. hey caitlin, I’m from germany and I really loved to read your article about our schützenfest 🙂
    For me, Schützenfest is the highlight of the year because everyone’s drinkinig and having a good time. So were you as I could read and I hope, you have a great time in germany eventhough there’s no schützenfest anymore 😉 It’s just a great tradition and much better than Oktoberfest, where everybody just wants to get drunk for actually no reason. I really appreciate your view on our german things!! 😀
    greeetings from hamm
    judith

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    • Hi Judith, Schützenfest was a blast for sure and I’m glad you could tell from my post. That was my #1 goal. I love the friendly atmosphere of SF, too, and I’d imagine that it would be missing from something like Oktoberfest because they’re so big and so crowded. Thanks again for reading and I’m happy you liked it. Best, Caitlin

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  12. Hey Caitlin,
    great articel. It makes much fun to read through! You are not only focus the drinking cultur in the Sauerland, rather the “get together” of all people, very good 🙂 In summer I will leave Germany to spend one year in the USA and I think this articel is a good foundation to explain the Schützenfest 🙂 I have only to add some things about the historical background. I hope it is OK, if I use your articel to reach my aim to bring the Schützenfest to America 😀
    Greetings from Winterberg
    Jonas

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    • Hi Jonas, Share this article away! I tried to write it in a way that both Germans and my American friends and family would enjoy. It’s definitely an interesting tradition to learn about, and the “get together” is the best part. Good luck in America. Where will you be? Best, Caitlin

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      • Hey Caitlin,
        I am sorry to answer so late. At first, many thanks to allow me to use your articel for information 🙂 I am very happy for your attitude of “Schützenfest”. Yesterday I got my destinoation. I will live in Mason City, Iowa during the following year.
        Best regards, Jonas

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  13. Hey Caitlin,
    thank you for the great articel.
    If you like the small Schützenfest in your Region and if you like to see it in a very big version you have to visit the Schützenfest in Neuss. It´s one of the biggest or the biggest in Germany. It´s so big that every year the Parade will be shown in the TV on WDR.

    http://www.schuetzenfest-neuss.com/

    Greetings from Neuss

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  14. Sauerland (Warstein, as in the beer) expat living in LA here. Never thought I’d say this, but from the way you describe it, I’m homesick and wanna go celebrate Schuetzenfest right now… 🙂 Thanks for the lovely report.

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    • Hi Evita, it’s nice to meet you! Sorry for making you homesick, but maybe that is a kind of compliment as well? 😉 I guess there’s nothing like it in LA. I’m really glad you liked it! Best, Caitlin

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  15. Die “Exotik” dieser Tradition erkennt wohl nur der Auswärtige. Für viele, im Sauerland aufgewachsenen, ist es nur ein kollektives, dreitägiges Besäufnis mit viel Brimborium darum herum nach dem Motto Glaube, Sitte, Heimat. Sorry, but not my cup oft tea.

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      • Nee is klar, kannst du Dich überhaupt in sie hineinversetzen? Weißt Du wie das ist ne andere Kultur kennen zu lernen?
        Yeah right, can You imagine what it must be like for her? do you know how it feels like to come across a whole new culture? don’t think so

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      • I guess Rene replied to davsen_76.
        A lot of “Sauerländer” don’t like the “Schützenfest” or can’t respect the traditions. But there is no reason at all for Rene to say something like this.

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  16. Hello Alexandra, so you don’t like Schlager music? I often find mixed reviews for it -either you like it or hate it. I just think it’s fun music and fun to sing along to, which is how I feel about country music, too (I’m a fan as well). I’m very glad you liked my little explanation! You lived in VA -that’s so cool! Where were you living? Best, Caitlin

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  17. I’m German AND from Iserlohn, which is like the border of the Sauerland, and I’ve never been at a Schützenfest before.
    There is one every year and I know it’s huge. But up until 19 I couldn’t stand beer (which I like now, in moderation that is). And I was bullied all throughout Gymnasium until my very last year – which was awesome, especially graduation.
    And now I have to move back and forth (Iserlohn to Mannheim and vice versa) every four month for my studies. So no way I have time for this.
    Now I really feel like I missed out all these years … Too bad …

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    • Maybe you’ll one day make it to a Schützenfest! Like I wrote, feeling like a part of the small-town community is what makes Schützenfest special to me, and I’m sure there are many other times to experience it. I’d say go to one at least once, but you’re not necessarily missing out if you don’t!

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  18. Thanks for writing this Caitlin!
    I’m a Canadian expat living in Attendorn & my colleagues have been bugging me about attending their local Schützenfest for months. One of them found your blog & sent it to me & all their friends. Your rule about not drinking like a German man made life easier last night 🙂
    Survived one night & have been talked into heading back for the next two, we’ll see how Monday goes 😉

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    • Hi Cheryl! We’re practically neighbors. 🙂 I hope you had a great time at yours (and made it until Monday)! I had such a hard time the first time around, but hopefully you felt better on Monday than I did.

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  19. Great article! I had the privilege of experiencing Schützenfest in Reiste on the first 3 days of my first ever trip outside of the US! It is no stretch to say that I have never met such generous and fun people! The festivities of the festival were great, but the best part was how many were eager to talk and drink with me for hours (in my language of English, no less, which many of the younger people spoke very well)! In fact, they would hardly allow me to buy a beer for myself! After just 3 days I feel such a strong connection to the friends I have made here that I think I must return again!

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    • Hi Steven, I still never get over how nice the people from these small Sauerland towns are to me -it’s such a great feeling! And the hospitality is unbelievable -the beer buying definitely contributed to a very difficult first Schützenfest for me. I say a return trip should absolutely be in your plans! Best, Caitlin

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  20. Ich musste sehr lachen bei dem Artikel ? einfach super – du bist herzlich zum Schützenfest in Bad Wünnenberg eingeladen! ?

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