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The birth of Pamplona's San Fermín festival

The image of San Fermín is carried in procession on 7 July.
The image of San Fermín is carried in procession on 7 July. / SUR
  • 7 july 1591

  • The festival, now known as the Sanfermines, gained international fame thanks to American writer Ernest Hemingway

‘1de enero, 2 de febrero, 3 de marzo, 4 de abril, 5 de mayo, 6 de junio, 7 de julio... ¡San Fermín!” This popular Spanish song, known all over the country, shows how today’s date can mean only one thing in Spain. 7 July is the feast of San Fermín, the patron saint of the region of Navarre and in whose name the famous bull running festival takes place in the city of Pamplona every July.

So, it seemed an easy topic then for this week’s What Happened Today section. However a little research reveals that actually nothing happened on 7 July in history to warrant San Fermín being celebrated on this day.

According to the story of the saint, he died a martyr on 25 September of the year 303 AD, a date that is celebrated in other places that have Fermín as their patron saint.

In Pamplona, however, the Church used to commemorate the feast of San Fermín on 10 October, but moved the festivities to 7 July in 1591, for one indisputable and sensible reason: the weather was an awful lot better in Pamplona in July than in October and the people were tired of washed-out celebrations. The other advantage was that in July the city already held a bullfighting festival so the change in date marked the start of the association of San Fermín with bulls.

The feast date is not the only thing about San Fermín (known as San Fermín of Amiens) that is a little hazy. In fact, it’s not clear that he even existed at all and his story, of which academics have found no historical evidence, can only be classed as a legend.

Like most legends though it has survived for centuries, however it was first recorded in Amiens, France, in the 9th century and reached Pamplona in the 12th century.

The story tells how Fermín was born in the third century AD, the son of an important Roman senator and a noble woman, both pagans. They were converted to Christianity thanks to the teachings of St Honestus and baptised by St Saturninus, the first bishop of Toulouse, France.

Fermin was later sent to Toulouse where he was ordained a priest and returned to preach in Navarre. However he then went back to France (then known by the Romans as Gallia - Gaul). There he is said to have converted thousands of pagans and settled in Amiens. At some point, though, he got on the wrong side of the Roman authorities and was imprisoned, tortured and beheaded.

However much truth there is in this tale, it certainly means a lot to the people of Pamplona who now turn out into the streets for seven days of partying and bull-running in the name of San Fermín, who they ask for protection before they set off.

The festival, now known as the Sanfermines, gained international fame thanks to American writer Ernest Hemingway. It attracts thousands of international visitors, some of whom join in the bull-running early each morning.