Pío Guerendiáin en la gatera © Javier Martínez

Ritual

We are what we repeatedly do.”
Aristotle

In the first light of a Pamplona morning, before the sun comes up. One of the many habitual runners of the encierro awakes and prepares for his daily test.  He does this slowly and deliberately, from ensuring that he is wearing the correct shirt to the way he ties his pañuelo and his shoelaces.  Everything has to be just so and this extends to his participation in the prayer to San Fermín, the exact spot where he will wait to run – right down to the very window or door on the street where he always waits.  Then, as the first jolting boom of a rocket echoes around the old city and through the hearts of those in the crowd, he kisses a little necklace bearing the image of a saint.  He does this always three times and then he feels he is ready.

But only then.

This is a scene that goes far beyond Pamplona and far beyond the encierro.  It is repeated in so many other places and on other stages.  It is the footballer who stoops to touch the soil of the pitch as he runs on at the start of a match.  It is the actor who makes the sign of a cross before he takes to the unforgiving or rousing stage.  It is the mother who sings her child to sleep every night after the same bath and the same story which will guarantee her little one will settle quickly.

There is no shortage of ritual in fiestas.  From the Alpha of the txupinazo to the Omega of the Pobre de Mi, a succession of stage-managed artefacts is created in the very likeness of those that have gone day before, year before, century before.  Rituals are at the heart of a fiesta that, on the face of it appears to be chaotic, anarchic and unstructured.  This notion of a free-for-all is only partly true – there is actually order in this chaos.  Throughout the day of fiesta there are points of order and structure.  Witness the morning prayer to San Fermín with its strict timings, co-ordinated manifestation and impeccably observed structure.  It is the ritual that ushers in the cohete to release the bulls, without it the encierro would arguably be lacking an appropriate exclamation point.

Then look no further than the evening corrida, that tragedy played out in three acts and repeated six times.  This is crammed full of rituals from the parade of the cuadrillas, the opening of the gate, the acts of the toreros themselves, the songs and music from the crowd, the colours, the costumes, the symbols and the movements.  It is a ritualistic play observed every evening in the same way it has for decades and to deviate from it would be met with scorn and derision.  The corrida abides by reconnecting the people with their roots and their histories.  It creates new stories to layer on top of the years of stories already put down.  As Miller Williams says; “Ritual is important to us as human beings.  It ties us to our traditions and our histories.”

On a more scientific note, there is plenty to suggest that habits and rituals help our brains to understand that they are on the right track.  It gives us a sense of purpose and even allows us to develop.  Yet the issue with this is that getting stuck in habits and rituals can stifle our variety and imprison us in a cycle of behaviour that ultimately inhibits us and creates a sense of insecurity once we step away from them.  Rituals connect us to our past, but perhaps they also chain us to it.  A balance has to be struck, after all many rituals are either beneficial, fun or both so why would we want to dispense with them?

It is easy to argue that many rituals are a pointless routine that not only serve very little purpose but only entrench meaningless superstitions and promote obsessive behaviour.  The Christian who makes the sign of a cross will not ward off evil, will not bring about any miracle and will not change anything.  It is a gesture, a placebo, a disposable action.  It is not a transaction but a “codified norm” as highlighted by Luis Miranda.  The codified norm points to a self-programming of activities instead of a genuine connection to the original reason for the ritual.  In a quotation that makes neither positive nor negative distinction to the outcome, Charles Reade has said; “Sow an act, and you reap a habit.  Sow a habit, and you reap a character.  Sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

When ritual becomes nothing more than habit then it follows a law of diminishing returns at best.  For a ritual to have true value then it must offer something material, some intrinsic quality, some purpose.  This could be by adding additional layers onto our experiences or could merely be the joy of familiarity, the comfort of the known.

Some research indicates that rituals can increase our perception of value and increase a sense of belonging.  This is at odds with those who shun the notion of doing things repeatedly, preferring spontaneity.  The Christian who makes the sign of the cross could argue that their gesture does indeed have value, connecting them to their faith, reminding them of what they stand for and the importance of their spiritual values.  

This connection between ritual and spiritual is widespread.  Peter Hollingworth outlined its importance in saying: “I enjoy ritual and ceremony.  What I don’t like is when it’s badly done or sloppily done.  This is actually a theological issue – the forms we adopt, the actions we take, the way we do things, are, as it were, a sacrament.”  While GK Chesterton expressed it in a similar vein; “Ritual will always mean throwing away something: destroying our corn or wine upon the altar of our gods.”  For a celebration of the combination of spiritual and ritual, look no further than the fiesta of San Fermín.

Fiesta is a combination of worlds, offering stage-managed set pieces that come around time after time.  Yet fiesta also provides an arena for spontaneity to exist and to thrive within certain parameters.  Note that the fiesta rituals normally take place within some arena, some boundaries; the Plaza de Toros, the Ayuntamiento, the closed streets of the encierro, the Cathedral.  Meanwhile the open street provides a space for spontaneity to develop.  The two are able to exist side-by-side.

Yet, the modern world has shown us two things.  The first is that we live in unpredictable times where a global pandemic such as Covid-19 can put an abrupt end to our normal way of life.  This has included fiestas up and down Spain and beyond, including Pamplona.  The impact of Covid has proved that our wonderful rituals are genuinely a delicately held thing; fragile and at the whim of fate.  The perceived greater good to society by implementing restrictions has shown that the fiestas are actually expendable and have a lower priority than public safety and the preservation of lives.

The second things we have seen is that we may have felt deep regret over the loss of the fiestas, but we were able to bear the loss through our collective resilience.  Partly this is under the banner of a promise of next year; a promise that the fiestas will return and we can throw our weight behind them when they return.  What is also clear is that the loss of fiestas, with its financial and morale impacts, is a burden that has not broken us.  

What then does this say for the value of our rituals when we consider that they are expendable and we are able to shoulder the burden of their loss?  Does this devalue them, or does it merely demonstrate that there is a higher cause when it comes to human life?  Some would argue that Covid has proved that many things we hold dear, including fiestas, are merely ephemeral and we should be prepared to rid ourselves of them.  Others would argue to the contrary, pointing out that our rituals also act as a datum, a point from which and to which we can always naviage.

In 2020 the rituals vanished and all we could rely on was our memories; the memories of fiestas gone.  At least Covid could not destroy our memories.  Yet, we are our memories.  Without them we stumble on, empty and dry as an arid patch of the Bardenas Reales.  Our memories are not merely recollections of events and emotions.  Our memories do not simply serve as a library or an indexing service.  Our memories are much more than a reference point.

Our memories are our stories, and these stories are intertwined with our lives, our communities and with other lives that we touch and feel.  What are we without our stories?  Our stories make us who we are.  Over time they help to shape us, to guide us and in the end they serve to define us and the paths we take.  Rituals are just one of the ways that we tell those stories.  Rituals respect the stories and give colour and life to the past, but ultimately allow them to be handed on to a new generation who will keep them, take them to their hearts absorb them into their own sphere and go on to relive them – so retelling the stories in a growing cycle; a pool of ever increasing circles.

Rituals turn our stories into legends and turn the people into heroes.  Rituals keep our stories alive.

Running of the bulls open ceremony 2019

Resumen de la juerga. Así hemos empezado la que va a ser una de las mejores juergas de la historia.

OPEN CEREMONY LIVE, JUNE 6

This moment is marked by a rocket -the “Txupinazo”- which is set off to announce the start of the Fiesta. All morning, crowds gather in the “Plaza Ayuntamiento”. It is often a hot day and there is not an inch of free space in the packed Square. The passion and intensity grows every minute until it reaches a crescendo at midday. At that point the Mayor and members of the Council step out onto the balconies of the Town Hall to greet the crowds.A nominated person shouts the announcement; “Pamploneses, Pamplonesas, Viva San Fermín! Gora San Fermín!” (people of Pamplona, long live San Fermín!) The crowd responds with cries of “Viva!” and “Gora!” and the rocket is launched into the sky.


At this moment the Square erupts as hundreds of bottles of Champagne are uncorked and sprayed liberally over the crammed crowd. The smart, clean clothes of the excited people take their first, but not their last soaking from the jets of spraying Champagne. All over the city the same collective madness bursts out and a whole new atmosphere reigns in the town.

The first bout of drinking has started as thousands of bottles of champagne are guzzled down for the start of an uninterrupted party until the day of the 14th of July arrives. Within a few hours many people will be on a high that will last for the whole week. The Txupinazo begins a high that for many people will last the whole week.

 


How to take part in the Txupinazo rocket

If you want to get right in there among the packed crowd it means getting there an hour before and pushing your way in among the packed crowd. If you want to see the spectacle then the best place would be from any one of the many balconies of private houses which surround the square. But of course that means getting an invite from of the owners or to rent the balconies of sanfermin.com. The square is so crammed that it might be better just to go along to one of the surrounding streets where you can feel the atmosphere of the whole thing. Or you can just do the same as many of the locals do, and watch it from the T.V. in some bar or other.

Inside the square

If you want to get right in there among the packed crowd it means getting there an hour before and pushing your way in among the packed crowd. To experience the whole spectacle in this way is unique of course, but remember that you won’t be able to move a muscle in the tight space. It will also very likely be teeming hot even if the heat is only coming from the milling crowd of sweating drinking singing bodies crammed together. Some young people make a very disgusting mixings: quetchup, cacao, mustard, flour, saving foam, etc. The whole thing can be so suffocating that people from the balconies often pour buckets of water over the crammed crowd to give them some relief. There can sometimes be waves of bodies pushed forward and some people can fall to the ground among the avalance of people. When it’s all over the departing crowd often look like they have just come out of an old washing machine what with all the water, champagne and sweating.

There are always some first-aid posts to attend to those who have fainted or bruised themselves, though it has never gotten more serious than something like that.


 


Open ceremony advices (Chupinazo tricks)

It’s no place for kids. They could get stepped on and at their height there is not much air moving round.
It’s no place for wearing sandals or light shoes. You’re going to get stepped on and also many people drop their empty champagne bottles on the ground when they have finished them, so broken glass is to be found all over the square.
Don’t wear any clothes that you value, and this is good advice for the whole of the Fiesta.
Don’t take your camera or any valuables with you. Taking decent photos will be impossible with all the liquid spraying round. And if you drop anything like your wallet or whatever it could be difficult to look for it among the packed crowd.
If you don’t want to see it inside the plaza, you can just do the same as many of the locals do, and watch it from the T.V. in some bar or other or at the big screens at the Plaza del Castillo.

 


Open ceremony from our balcony

If you can watch the Open Ceremony from a balcony we can offer to you the best of them. Surely the best balcony to watch the Open Ceremony with the rocket launch (The Txupinazo). You can be exclusive witness of the Fiesta from a safe and privileged position. Our local guides (Spanish, English, French) accompany you to the apartment, from which you can watch the event while enjoying a typical snack with drinks.