San Fermin Festival

San Fermin Festival

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: Week that includes July 7
Where Celebrated: Pamplona, Spain
Symbols and Customs: Bull, Running of the Bulls, Safety Barriers


The Feast of San Fermin was originally observed in Pamplona, Spain, on October 10 with prayers and a procession in honor of the city's patron saint. But in 1591 the Pamplona city council proposed to the Church that the celebration be transferred to July 7, to coincide with a fair that was traditionally held in the city and that featured the running of bulls through the streets. Some scholars believe that this was a deliberate attempt to link the saint's name to an event that was an entirely secular celebration, while others believe that the date was changed simply to take advantage of the summer weather. In any case, as time went on, the fair declined in importance while the RUNNING OF THE BULLS became the most prominent feature of the day's events.

Today, the start of the San Fermin Festival is announced with a gun fired from the balcony of the town hall. Bands of txistularis (a Basque word pronounced cheestoo-LAH-rees)-with dancers, drummers, and txistu (a musical instrument similar to a flute) players-march through the town and its suburbs playing songs announcing the RUNNING OF THE BULLS , an event that has now been part of the festival for more than 400 years. At 8:00 a.m., the bulls are allowed to run from the corrals in which they are kept through the streets to the bullring. Before them run the young men of the city, often accompanied by tourists who have come to Pamplona to risk their lives and display their bravery. When the bulls reach the arena, the running ends and they are locked up in their pens until the bullfight takes place later in the day. Although the race lasts barely five minutes, participants are frequently injured and occasionally killed by the stampeding animals.

The killing of the BULL didn't become an official part of the San Fermin Festival until the end of the seventeenth century. Up to that time, the bull was simply run until he was exhausted and of no further use. Then he was taken back to the corral and eventually returned to the country to recover from any injuries he might have suffered. Nowadays, the bull usually falls victim to a professional bullfighter in the bullring.

The San Fermin Festival received a huge boost in popularity after the publication of Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises, in which the RUNNING OF THE BULLS at Pamplona is described in vivid detail. Thousands of people now come to Pamplona in July to watch from behind the wooden barriers that line the streets to the arena as the bulls are prodded and taunted until they are ready to charge anyone or anything that stands in their way.



The bull has long been regarded as a sacred animal in Spain. Because of its great size and strength, the bull is also a symbol of sexual vigor and fecundity. Any man who comes in direct contact with a bull, either by fighting it or by eating its flesh, is believed to partake of the bull's power.

Running of the Bulls

For many centuries in Spain, people used bulls on a rope or with burning pitch on their horns to celebrate important saints' days or special occasions, such as weddings, betrothals, and religious festivals. Before a wedding, for example, the bridegroom and his male friends would run a bull, tied with a heavy rope, through the streets of town to the bride's house, where it was killed. What the groom was trying to do was to bring his clothing in contact with the animal, thus acquiring its sexual powers. The present-day bullfight represents, in a symbolic way, the transmission of the bull's power, at the precise moment of its death, to the matador or bullfighter. But rather than being a sacred rite, it has become a public entertainment.

The "runners of bulls" were originally lower-class people skilled at running in front of the bull or handling the rope tied to its horns. They were often athletes, acrobats, or dancers who could move quickly and get out of the animal's way. Eventually, the more highly skilled performers began to charge for their participation. As time passed, they were replaced by professional bullfighters or matadors.

Today's runners are usually young men-and occasionally young women dressed as men-who want to prove their courage and agility.

Safety Barriers

First used in 1776 to mark the route of the running bulls, the safety barriers are made of fir wood. Along the course, these barriers are made up of 1,800 boards, forty gates, 590 posts, 200 palisades (fences), 2,400 wedges, and 2,000 bolts. Every year, twenty boards must be replaced because of damage.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Serran-Pagan, Gines. Pamplona-Grazalema: From the Public Square to the Bullring. New York: Enquire Print & Pub., 1980. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


Council of Pamplona, Spain

San Fermin Guide
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

San Fermin Festival

July 6-14
The festivities surrounding this well-known festival in Pamplona, Spain, honoring the city's bishop, begin with a rocket fired from the balcony of the town hall. Bands of txistularis (a Basque word pronounced chees-too-LAH-rees)—with dancers, drummers, and txistu players (a musical instrument like a flute)—and bagpipers march through the town and its suburbs playing songs announcing the "running of the bulls," an event that has taken place here for 400 years. Each morning, young men, dressed in typical Basque costumes, risk their lives running through the streets of Pamplona ahead of the bulls being run to the bullring where the bullfights will be held. Perhaps the best-known portrayal of this scene occurs in Ernest Hemingway's novel, The Sun Also Rises.
Pamplona Tourist Office
c/Hilarion Eslava 1
Pamplona, 31001 Spain
34-948-206-540; fax: 34-948-207034
AnnivHol-2000, p. 114
BkHolWrld-1986, Jul 7
FestWestEur-1958, p. 201
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 163
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
"People of Pamplona, the San Fermin festival is over, the best festival in the world," Pamplona mayor Enrique Maya said from the balcony of city hall to cheers from the crowd just before the singing began.
A bull broke from the pack and gored three runners during the final run of this year's San Fermin festival yesterday, health officials from the northern Spanish city of Pamplona said.
A reveller is being hit on the bullring during the running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain, July 14, 2019.
The run in the San Fermin festival was preceded by a protest by a small number of the "runners" who sat on the street before the bulls were released.
PAMPLONA, Spain Five people were hospitalized after the opening bull run of this year's San Fermin festival in Pamplona, including two Americans and a Spaniard who were gored by bulls, officials said Sunday.
Summary: Pamplona [Spain], Jul 8 (ANI): At least three people were gored during the first bull run at the annual San Fermin festival here on Sunday, local authorities said.
Runners often get injured at traditional bull-runs in Spain, but no one has died at Pamplona's San Fermin festival since Spaniard Daniel Jimeno was gored in the neck by a Jandilla bull in 2009.
Madrid: The world-famous and controversial San Fermin festival with its legendary bull runs was opened on Saturday in the northern Spanish town of Pamplona.
And Gracia has told his players to expect an onslaught as intense as the Pamplona bull run during the San Fermin festival every July.
Thomas filmed himself taking part in the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain at the weekend, when at least nine people were reported to be injured running the bulls.
A man was gored and three others trampled in the first running of the bulls at this year's San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain.
The thought is interrupted by the ringing of bells dangling from the necks of two trailing oxen--the San Fermin festival's version of a mop-up crew--that signals the bulls have all passed this portion of the course, and I can now stop hugging the fence.

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