What’s the Origin of the Largest Tomato Fight Festival in the World?

Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather outside of their house to participate in a cruel bloodbath. But the red liquid isn’t from blood — it’s from tomatoes. Sounds like a bad stunt from a Tarantino movie, right? Nope. It’s the traditional Spanish tomato fight festival called “La Tomatina.”

Each year according to schedule — the last Wednesday of the month of August — this festival takes place in the city of Buñol, an autonomous community in Valencia, and lasts about an hour.

You’ll be pleased to hear that during this rather strange festival, there are no human casualties. But a lot of tomatoes are completely destroyed.

So Why Do the People of Buñol Celebrate La Tomatina?

This festival is a treasured tradition for the Valencian citizens of Buñol, and they do their best to keep the tradition every year. But if you ask them if they know the origin of this strange tradition that causes them to throw enormous quantities of tomatoes at each other each year, most wouldn’t know what to answer.

You can’t blame them for that, though, since the origin of the festival remains unclear until today. The one fact that everyone agrees on is that the festival began in 1945. Beyond this, however, many different theories exist as to the origin of the festival.

We took a survey of the most popular of these theories and decided to share them with you in this post.

Opposition to Dictator Franco

One of the theories originates with the Spanish dictator Franciso Franco. He went by the nickname of “El Caudillo” (the leader), and rose to power in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and continued to reign until 1975. He was known for suppressing his opponents from both sides of the political spectrum, whether by ending non-governmental worker’s unions or through unfavorable media coverage.

The general belief was that rule under Franco was so insufferable that his opponents secretly wished to throw tomatoes at him as an act of protest and remove him from the government. His political power was so great, however, that many feared his anger. Instead of outright rebellion, this festival occurred every year right under Franco’s nose as a way to quietly demonstrate opposition to his rule. The tradition continued after he left power as well, becoming a testament to the dark era of his reign.

A Food Fight that Went Foul

Another theory maintains that the festival originated from an incident that occurred by chance with teenagers in the Buñol central square. These teenagers hurled many different types of food at each other for hours, among them tomatoes. According to this theory, a year later the youth returned to the square on a hot summer day to reconstruct the fight, but this time they decided to also aim at random people walking in the street. People threw back items in response from their shopping carts filled with, of course, tomatoes — one of the foods most strongly identified as a traditional Spanish food.

The square filled with red liquid, as though there was a massacre in the center, sparking a lot of curiosity and drawing even more of a crowd.  The following year more people joined the fight. From that time on, every year that the festival occurs, a range of canon fire is heard at 11:00 sharp in the Valencia square announcing that the battle has begun. After the canon is shot, a truck enters the square, unloading an enormous number of tomatoes for the first hour of this supervised battle.

It is estimated that 160 tons of tomatoes are destroyed at the festival each year.

In Memory of Saint Bernard

A third theory involves Saint Bernard, also known as Saint Bernardus, an important figure in Christian theology. Some say that the patron Bertrand of the Valencian city of Buñol had a name similar to Saint Bernard.

The connection between the holy patron and the annual war on tomatoes may seem incidental, and there doesn’t seem to be any real logical explanation for the existence of the festival. There’s one possible connection, however.  The holiday celebration of the patron saint Louis Bertrand, which takes place annually on the 4th of August, is also a festival which has a reputation for being a bit out of control.

This kind of traditional event isn’t only in Spain. Many cultures have traditions based on historical events which become meaningful celebrations for them over time. To mark these celebrations, they create a folk tradition that’s not always directly related to the meaning of the day itself. The yearly folk tradition instead becomes a part of the cultural collective identity of the city.

Beyond these three theories there are of course others, as well as folk tales and myths of the origin of the largest tomato fight festival in the world. What really matters though isn’t the origin of the festival but the fact that it has continued to exist for the last 70 years.

That’s a real commitment to tradition!

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