Pamplona and San Fermín

Los Sanfermines Is a Mixture of Explosivity and Fun With a Religious Tradition, Whose Popularity Has Managed to Put Pamplona on the International Map

The origins of the festival of San Fermín date back to 1591 when the Town Call and the Cabildo of Pamplona decided, for reasons relating to the weather, to change the date of the religious and festival acts with which the people celebrated San Fermín in October. The chosen date was July 7th, which meant that this festival would coincide with another festival highlighted by the running of the bulls. From this point on, tradition, religion, and debauchery have come together to create a festival that has acquired worldwide renown. The 1926 novel by Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, is the most famous ambassador of the Sanfermines.

San Fermín
Procesión de San fermín, 1924. Foto: Archivo Municipal de Pamplona

The opening event of the festival, the Chupinazo, takes place on July 6th at midday. Before the appointed time, the crowd gathers in the square in front of the town hall and waits for the municipal councilor to launch the rocket that will begin the Sanfermines. Before lighting the rocket, the officiant will say the words that have been a part of this ceremony since 1941: “Pamplona, Pamplonesas, Viva San Fermín! Gora San Fermín!” Then the crowd erupts into a party that does not stop until the evening of the July 14th.

The popular clothes of the festival are all white (which little by little will take on the color of whatever people are drinking) and a red scarf. According to tradition, this scarf should be worn around the neck at all times during the festival, but until the lighting of the rocket, it is common to see them tied to peoples’ wrists or belts. The red color comes from the tradition of wearing the color during the offices to honor those holy martyrs who have died for their beliefs.

The most famous event of San Fermín and, perhaps, the defining image of the festival today, are the running of the bulls (Los Encierros). The tradition takes every morning at 7:00. This tradition goes back to the Middle Ages when the shepherds would enlist the help of young men from Pamplona to drive the cattle for the bull fights to the Plaza de Castillo, the first bullring of the city. This event, called “entrada,” in its beginnings, came to be a part of the festival program as a spectacle and popular activity when, in the mid-19th century, the young men who helped the shepherds started to runin front of the bulls instead of at their sides and behind them.

The event begins at 8 a.m., and it goes for a little more than half a kilometer from the Cuesta de Santo Domingo to the Plaza de Toros. Just before they begin, the participants sing the famous protection song to the saint a few times, which says: “A San Fermín pedimos, por ser nuestro patron, nos guíe en el encierro y nos dé su benedición.” The running of the bulls, which shouldn’t last more than three minutes, ends with the entrance of the bulls (6 bulls and 6 steers) into the Plaza de Toros. Then a dropping of the heifers takes place. After this day, there is a bullfight held every afternoon at 7 that pertains to the Feria Taurina de San Fermín.

The Procesión de San Fermín takes place on July 7th. It is one of the most popular events of this festival. At 10 in the morning, the Corporación Municipal (dressed in regalia and accompanied by musicians, giant puppets, and other commemorative things) marches to the cathedral in search of the Cabildo, then to the Iglesia de San Lorenzo to recover the image of San Fermín. For an hour and a half, the procession fills the main streets of the historic district, making short stops, or “Momenticos,” in which different honors are made to the saint. The most famous “momentico” takes place next to the atrium of the Catedral, at the end of the procession, when the Corporación Municipal dismisses the Cabildo and the giant puppets dance.

San Fermín
El Pobre de mi en la plaza del Ayuntamiento despidiendo las fiestas hasta el año próximo

Pamplona and the festival of the Sanfermines boasts the Comparsa de Gigantes y Cabezudos as one of the main attractions of the festival. This centennial institution brings together a total of 25 figures, among which are Giants, Big Heads, Kilikis (smaller than the big heads; these wear a tricorne and carry a foam sword), and Zaldikos (riders also armed with a foam sword). There is a parade every day for these images through the streets of Pamplona.

The Riau-Riau is one of the historical events that highlights the Sanfermines. On the afternoon of July 6th, the crowd accompanies the Corporación Municipal from the town hall to the Iglesia de San Lorenzo, where the Vespers Mass is celebrated. However, the intention of the Riau-Riau was actually to stop the Corporación form reaching the church. This was done by chanting “riau-riaus,” the Vals de Astráin while blocking the way.

The origin of this tradition dates back to 1914, when Ignacio Beleztena carried out the deed through his own initiative of causing trouble for a foreign corporation for their political ideas. It was considered to be somewhere between a prank and a tradition, and it was banned in 1991 because of the inconvenience it caused. It is currently kept alive, but on a much smaller scale, as an activity not included in the official program, as long as it does not disturb anyone.

The festivities of San Fermín run more or less continuously until July 14th with a program of different events such as firework displays, concerts, and all manner of events for all ages. The fun never stops; the streets fill with people, and many of the people who came to see the festival gather to eat and drink, and nap in the park.

July 14th is a day of farewells. First the giants leave, and then, in the afternoon, the Peñas say goodbye, and at nightfall, the crowd that has come from all over the world gathers in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to sing Pobre de Mí, a popular hymn that officially closes the Festival de San Fermín. The famous lyrics are “Pobre de mí, pobre de mí, que se han acabado las fiestas de San Fermín.” For a few years, after the end of the festivities, many people would go to the Iglesia de San Lorenzo and leave their handkerchiefs and a candle on the fence as part of a custom that has come to be the last tradition of the Sanfermines.

The Sanfermines has been converted into one of the most famous festivals in the world. Its model has come to be imitated in many places, both within and without Spain. In the U.S., for example, the festival has become very popular, and it has served as an inspiration for events like the Dewey Beach Running of the Bulls in Delaware or the Sanfermines in New Orleans.

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