What does the 20th of January mean to you? Not much probably. Maybe someone you know’s birthday. Maybe even yours. For most its one of those horrible dates lost in the middle of winter, between the excesses of Christmas and the fun of Valentines (or between the fun of Christmas and the excess of Valentines, whatever rocks your boat). Part of the post Christmas slope that has to be climbed in order to reach the first proper holiday at Easter and the better weather it brings. Except that is, if you are a native of San Sebastian. A Donostiarra. Cause the 20th of January is San Sebastian´s day. And you live and die for the 20th of January.
So what is San Sebastian’s day? Well it commemorates the liberation of the city from Napolean´s troops by the British army at the beginning of the nineteenth century, blah, blah, blah, and more history when the city was burned by them, except for the 31st August Street, because the bastards needed somewhere to sleep, blah, blah, bladey, blah. The official version goes along those lines anyway. You can check that out on Wikipedia – here. The reality is that its an excuse to dress as a soldier or a chef, go marching through the city banging a drum or a barrel with your lifelong friends, drink, laugh, eat and feel proud of being from a city like San Sebastian. And the locals do all this with relish, dedication and infectious good spirit. Makes me proud to be from here. Even though I´m not.
Chatting to some colleagues from here I asked them if San Sebastian was the best day of the year for them, pretty much knowing what the answer would be. One commented “Yes, by a long way from the 2nd best. And I couldn’t tell you what the 2nd best is.” Another knew, “2nd best Santo Tomas”. Duh, obviously! Another commented that “The first time I hear the march of San Sebastian I get goosebumps. And I´m from Pamplona”. See, infectious.
From Midnight to Midnight on the 20th of January, the drums never cease. Drums and barrels I should say, cause if you´re dressed as a chef you play a barrel. They talk to each other during the marches, normally the drums leading and then the barrels responding. The official start is in the Constitution Square at midnight and it´s an incredible sight (and sound) if you can get near the place. People are packed in like sardines in the square and in all the entrance points people try and inch closer through the crowds. But it´s really the emotion of the people that hits you, everyone singing their hearts out or thumping on a drum. Singing with passion, emotion, pride, love.
Marchers go out mainly with their gastronomic societies from a fixed place at a fixed time and then through a fixed itinerary by the town hall. This ensures that somewhere there is always someone playing the drum on the 20th. It´s a fixed repertoire of tunes by the composer Sarriegui, you´re not allowed to play anything else on the day, although some societies have adopted other songs to play the other side of midnight on the 21st. You can hear the sounds here if you have spotify. If not, download it, it´s great – here.
One tradition of the festival which has been hard to keep going is the traditional eating of baby eels on the 19th. They were at 500€ a kilo around Christmas this year and can reach heights of 1,000€. So it´s easy to understand why! Fortunately for me, it´s one of only two “normal” foodstuffs I just can’t stomach. So happy for that one to disappear.
San Sebastian has a population of 180,000. 20,000 participate by marching. The other 160,000 by singing:
San Sebastian’s March
We are here
So are we
We are always happy, always joyful!
There is a Sebastian in heaven
There´s only one San Sebastian in the world
He is the saint and this is the people
Here you see what is our San Sebastian