It’s January, and as we all know, January in San Sebastian is special. It’s true that Christmas is over, but the cider season begins and on the 20th we celebrate the city’s big day, the day of Saint Sebastian. This is a festival that we often talk about on our tours and we are very aware of it, as our office is located next to the monument dedicated to the festival.
The party of Saint Sebastian
But what is Saint Sebastian’s Day all about? Just a hint, we call this day Tamborrada, “tambor” meaning drum. And as you might have guessed, it’s because on that day drums are played. Although it may sound noisy and very annoying, it’s not that bad, because it’s only 24 hours of partying, from the midnight on the 19th to the 20th to the midnight on the 20th to the 21st.
During these 24 hours, the tamborradas (“drum companies”) go out into the city’s neighbourhoods to play their drums. Obviously we don’t all play at the same time, each tamborrada has its own timetable and route, but there is at least one tamborrada on the street in each neighbourhood at all times.
These tamborradas are mostly made up of adults and teenagers, and as this is a festival for everyone to enjoy, we also have a Tamborrada for children.
The children’s Tamborrada is somewhat different from that of the adults, as each school has its own company and instead of each one going out on its own, they all go out at the same time on the morning of the 20th of January, following the same route, like a big parade through the Centre neighbourhood.
The children’s Tamborrada has been held since 1927 on the initiative of Euskal Billera, and since then most of the city’s children have taken part in it. Today around 5,000 children make up the parade on the 20th of January and it is very nice to see them pass through the streets of the Centre. Each school has its own uniform, so watching them parade is like watching a long coloured snake slither through the city.
If you happen to be in San Sebastian at this time of year, we recommend that you spend some time in the morning watching the children’s Tamborrada. You will see the children’s enthusiasm and it is a perfect way to understand the history and culture of San Sebastian.
Origins of the Tamborrada
On the day of Saint Sebastian we recreate the life of the city during the French occupation between 1808 and 1813. During this period, French soldiers occupied the convent of San Telmo in the Old Town and every day they left the building beating drums at the time of the changing of the guard.
Coincidentally, next to the door of the convent was one of the few fountains in the city, where the people of San Sebastian, especially women and cooks, would go with barrels to collect water for their homes and restaurants, forming a queue.
The fact is that in Donosti we have a reputation for being cheerful and joking people, who don’t take things too seriously, so that every time the French came out banging the drums, we responded by banging the barrels, imitating them and laughing at them.
Over time, this has evolved into the festival we have today, and that’s why the tamborradas that go out around the city on the 20th of January are dressed partly as soldiers and partly as cooks and water carriers, boys and girls included, banging drums and barrels.
We know that the Tamborrada is not a party for everyone, even people from the surrounding area don’t understand very well what we do, but it is a beautiful and fun party, for us the best day of the year. So if you are in San Sebastian on the 20th of January, we recommend you to go out and enjoy yourselves.
The noise is inevitable, so accept it and make the most of a very special day. Go to the Constitution Square to see the start or end of the festival at midnight (go in good time to get a place), follow the tamborradas singing and dancing, watch the children’s tamborrada and eat and drink as we do.