On the last Wednesday in August, this year in a week’s time, on the 30th, the Plaza del Pueblo in Buñol, Valencia runs red with the juice of tomatoes. It’s La Tomatina festival, an hour of fruit carnage as thousands of people throw tomatoes at each other. But how did this somewhat strange tradition start?
The origins of Buñol’s tomato-throwing festival are unknown. There are a number of stories with the most popular being of a group of teenagers who started in a food fight after a summertime religious celebration in the 1940s.
Possible origins of La Tomatina
Possible theories include a local food fight among friends, a teenage class war, a volley of tomatoes from bystanders at a carnival parade, a practical joke on a bad musician, and the anarchic aftermath of an accidental lorry spillage.
Based on popular feasts in the mid-20th century, it was probably the Corpus Christi celebration. In the area, there is a parade of Gigantes y Cabezudos (Giants and Big Heads)—large, costumed, papier-mache figures.
Whatever the truth, La Tomatina was born and repeated year after year. However, city officials banned the tomato throwing in the 1950s.
Burial of the tomato
It was the ban of the tomato throwing festivities in the early 1950s that increased its popularity. In 1957, the townspeople of Buñol held a ceremonial tomato burial to express their discontent. A large tomato was ‘laid to rest’ in a coffin and citizens carried it through the streets in a funeral procession.
Authorities lifted the ban in 1959. Since then, La Tomatina has been recognised in Spain as an official Fiesta of International Tourist Interest. At one point, 40-50,000 people would descend on the small town for the festival. However, since 2012/3, numbers have been limited to 20,000 ticket holders.
Let La Tomatina begin!
The tomatoes come from Extremadura, where they are less expensive. Technically the festival does not begin until someone climbs a greased, two-storey high pole and reaches the ham at the top.
In practice this takes a long time. The festival starts regardless, with a gunshot. Lorries line up with around 300,000 lbs of fruity ammunition. Then the chaos begins.
The tomato throwing lasts for an hour, the end signified by another shot. At that point no more tomatoes can be thrown and the participants trudge off home. Some residents will hose them clean, but there’s always the river.
The town cleans the square with water from the Roman aqueduct using fire trucks.