A Brief History of the Fiesta de San Fermín

town hall square
The crowd in the Town Hall Square for the chupinazo

The historical origins of the San Fermín fiesta are difficult to pin down.  There are writings from the 13th and 14th centuries that mention the Sanfermines, which, up to the 15th-century, were held in October to coincide with Saint’s birthday on the 10th.  But at some time during the 15th-century the fiesta was moved to July in part because of October’s unpredictable weather, but July can also be unpredictable at times due to the Atlantic storms that help give Green Spain it’s name.

According to some historians, the Sanfermines are actually a combination of three separate fiestas; a principle religious festival in honor of one of the cities patron saints, San Fermín, which has taken place since time immemorial, a commercial fiesta organized in the 14th-century and combined with the bullfighting festival, the Feria del Toro, which also began during the latter part of the 14th-century.  With this combination of the three fiestas, and with the change of date in 1591, the Sanfermines were finally born.

In  the beginning, the fiesta lasted only two days and included the Procession of San Fermín, musicians, a tournament, theatre and bullfights.  Later on the celebration grew in both length and scope to include the nightly fireworks and traditional dances in the Plaza del Castillo, the main plaza in the Old Quarter.  Writings from the 17th and 18th centuries refer to religious celebration taking part right next to the musicians, dancers, tournaments, acrobats, bull runs and bull fights, and of the clergy’s concern “over the abuse of drink, the permissiveness of young men and women, and the presence of people from other lands who, with their shows, made the city more amusing.” Nothing changes!

Comparsa de Gigantes
The Giants on Calle Mayor, July 6

The 19th-century saw the addition of the Comparsa de Gigantes, the Company of Giants, representing the Kings and Queens of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.  The eight giants made their debut along with the cabezudos and kilikis, the carnival-like big heads, and zaldikos, the horse-shaped figures who chase the children around the streets during the fiesta.  The morning parades of these figures is a great family tradition that continues today, with the oldest Gigante dating back nearly 150 years.

The 20th-century saw the regional fiesta grow in popularity when Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises”, also known as “Fiesta”, was first released in 1926.  It encouraged visitors from around the world to head to Pamplona to take part in the fiesta.  The movie version of his work, most of which was actually filmed in Mexico, again brought greater exposure to the fiesta when it was released in 1957.  Television exposure in the early 80s attracted even more attention.  Today, the fiesta attracts tens of thousands from around Spain, France, and the rest of world, nearly doubling the cities population over the weekends.

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