What's with all the garlic at San Fermín?

What's with all the garlic at San Fermín?

In 1947, American LIFE magazine photographer Tony Linck traveled to the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona, Spain. Looking at his photo essay today, one might be surprised by just how much the festival in 1947 resembles the festival today. Bulls ran into the same arena, the same paper-mache giants paraded through the same streets, and the same drunken joy of revelers filled the city.

However, to a viewer today, one photograph stands out: a picture of three festival-goers posing with garlands of garlic draped over their shoulders. 

Dressed primarily in white attire, and wearing scarves and Pamplona's traditional style of "espadrilles" shoes, the men otherwise model the aesthetic of Pamplona's festival. But the garlic strands around their neck, called horcas de ajo in Spanish, may seem out of place. What's the story behind this accessory? Where did it come from, and why are they wearing it?

The image highlights a once-significantand now sadly dyingtradition of the Running of the Bulls festival: the garlic market of San Fermín.

The tradition of selling garlic garlands during Los Sanfermines dates back centuries, and it is a story of taxation and defiance. In the 17th century, a decree in the Navarran town of Falces, near Pamplona, imposed taxes on grains, legumes, and most vegetables cultivated in the region. For every unit sold, farmers needed to pay taxes to the Church.

For whatever reason, garlic was exempt from this tax, so local farmers in Falces united to protest the decree by only growing garlic. The surplus of garlic in Falces necessitated its sale elsewhere, and what better market to sell the crop than in the nearby city of Pamplona during its festival of San Fermín?

What started as a few booths of garlic-vendors in a plaza in the 17th century rapidly boomed into a tradition that was known and loved across the region. Since garlic heads stay fresh for around six or seven months, people from all across the region of Navarra would travel into Pamplona during Los Sanfermines to experience the festival and to pick up hundreds of garlic heads that would last them most of the year. These garlic-loving revelers would wear their horcas de ajo as a necklace all around the city while they celebrated the festival at bullfights, in bars, and in the streets.

The tradition became so popular that, as late as the 1970s, up to 50 or 60 vendors would sell garlic during San Fermín in the Plaza de las Recoletas. In fact, although the square was officially named Plaza de las Recoletas, many locals only knew the plaza as "Plaza de los Ajos," or "The Garlic Square," and many members of Pamplona's older generation still refer to the plaza by this name.

Sadly, the rising costs for vendors at San Fermín - coupled with the low profit-margins of garlic - has resulted in the rapid loss of this tradition in recent decades. By the 1990s, there were only six stalls of garlic in the square, and since the mid-2010s, there has only been one booth selling garlic strands - and only on a few days during the festival.

The loss of San Fermín's iconic garlic market is a sad testament to the impact of negligent practices that make the festival more about tourists and less about Navarran locals. We hope to bring attention to this historic tradition and, hopefully, help bring about a resurgence of the San Fermín garlic market in coming years. What do you think about this tradition? Would you wear garlic strands at the festival this July?

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