San Fermin: The Running of the Bulls

In Pamplona, between the 6th and the14th of July, thousands of revelers celebrate the start of the famed San Fermin running of the bulls festival in this northern Spanish city. The festival started with the traditional launching of a fireworks rocket — known as the “Chupinazo”— from the town hall balcony. The heaving crowd packs the square down below, jumping and screaming “Viva San Fermin!” Most in the crowd wave red neckerchiefs, which along with white shirts and trousers form the traditional festival clothing.

The Chupinazo takes place a day before the first of eight 8 a.m. bull runs. Thousands of people at the festival test their speed and bravery by racing ahead of six fighting bulls along a 930-yard course from a holding pen to the city’s bull ring. The bulls are then killed by professional matadors in bullfights each afternoon. The nine-day, street-partying fiesta was immortalized in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises” and attracts thousands of foreign tourists.

Bull runs, or “encierros,” as they are called in Spanish, are a traditional part of summer festivals across Spain. Dozens are injured each year in the runs, most of them in falls. In all, 15 people have died from gorings in San Fermin since record-keeping began in 1924.

What are the Spaniards Actually celebrating at the Running of the Bulls?:

In a word: Fermin or San Fermin(Saint Fermin) Fermin is said to have been the son of Eugenia and Firmo, a Roman of senatorial rank in Pamplona, Spain in the 3rd century. Fermin was converted to Christianity, and he was baptised in Navarra at the spot now known as, the “Small Well of San Cernin”,

Saturninus was the first bishop of Toulouse, France, and he converted and baptized Fermin. He himself was martyred in 257 AD, significantly by being tied to a bull by his feet and dragged to his death, a martyrdom that is sometimes transferred to Fermin and relocated at Pamplona. In Toulouse, the earliest church, dedicated to Notre-Dame du Taur (“Our Lady of the Bull”), still exists, though rebuilt. Though the 11th century Basilica of Saint-Sernin, the largest surviving Romanesque structure in France, has superseded it, the church is said to be built where the bull stopped. The street, which runs straight from the Capitole, is named not the Rue de Notre-Dame but the Rue du Taur. San Cernin (Saturninus) is the patron saint of Pamplona.

Fermin was born in Pamplona which is in the province of Navarre in Northern Spain, which is part the Basque region. However, he was ordained a priest in Toulouse, France, according to the local legend, and returned to Pamplona later as its first bishop. Some years later, he preached the gospel through Aquitania, Auvernia and Anjou, before settling in Amiens, France, where he was also named Bishop of Amiens. The local authorities in Amiens had him imprisoned and later beheaded. He died on September 25, AD 303.

In Legenda aurea several miracles attended the discovery and translation of the relics of Saint Fermin in the time of Savin, bishop of Amiens (traditionally ca 600). A sweet odor arose from his grave. The smell caused ice and snow to melt, flowers to grow, the sick to be cured, and trees to be inclined reverently toward the saint.

When certain relics of the saint were brought back to Pamplona in 1196, the city decided to mark the occasion with an annual event. Over the centuries, the saint’s festival, the ancient annual fair and the running of the bulls and subsequent bullfights have all melded together.

Besides Pamplona, Fermín is venerated in other places in Navarre, such as Lesaka, in the fiesta called the Regata del Bidasoa. In the basilica of San Fermín de Aldapa, the martyrdom of Saint Fermin is still commemorated on September 25. On the preceding Thursday to Sunday there are numerous festivities there, in the Navarrería (a neighbourhood of Pamplona) and near the Cathedral. Celebrations begin with a firework rocket set off by a youngster from the Navarrería, who has been given the title of the little mayor. As at Pamplona, the celebrations have a special closing ceremony called Pobre de Mí (Poor Me).

Why Do the men (and now women) traditionally wear all white with a red scarf?

According to the parish priest of the San Lorenzo Church in Pamplona, Jesús Labari, where the chapel is in honor of San Fermín, the red scarf is worn for religious ceremonies throughout Spain, to honor saints who were martyred and died for their beliefs. The priests dress in red on the feast Day. In the case of the festival in honor of San Fermín, attendees do this because San Fermin was martyred, and this is the religious custom of the people of this region. White is the color of holiness.

The red scarf is a distinctive element of the San Fermín festival, so much so that tradition says that you only wear it on your neck while the festival lasts. This is why before the rocket is fired, the people have it on their wrist, in their pocket or in their hand, waving it in the air when the person responsible for starting the festival shouts, “Viva San Fermín, Gora San Fermín”. When the festival begins, the scarf takes its place on one’s neck or head, as imagination and fashion would see fit.