La Tomatina Festival, Spain’s Annual Tomato Throwing Celebration

La Tomatina Festival
Revellers pelt each other with tomatoes during the world's biggest tomato fight at La Tomatina festival in Bunol, Spain.

 Jasper Juinen / Getty Images

La Tomatina is Spain’s tomato throwing festival that takes place annually on the last Wednesday in August in the town of Buñol. The origins of the festival are largely unknown, though a popular story tells of a group of teenagers who engaged in a food fight after a summertime religious celebration in the 1940s. Tomato throwing in Buñol was banned by city officials until the townspeople held a ceremonial tomato burial to express their discontent.

Fast Facts: La Tomatina

  • Short Description: La Tomatina is an annual tomato throwing festival that began as a 1940s food fight and has since been recognized as a Fiesta of International Tourist Interest.  
  • Event Date: The last Wednesday in August every year
  • Location: Buñol, Valencia, Spain

The ban was lifted in 1959, and since then, La Tomatina has been recognized in Spain as an official Fiesta of International Tourist Interest. Since 2012, permitted entrance to La Tomatina has been capped at 20,000 people, and the city of Buñol imports more than 319,000 pounds of tomatoes for the hour-long event.

Origins

It is unclear how Spain’s tomato festival began, as there are no accurate records detailing the origins of La Tomatina. Buñol—the small village in the Spanish province of Valencia where La Tomatina takes place each year—had a population of only around 6,000 in the 1940s, and it is unlikely a minor public disturbance would have garnered much national, let alone international, attention, especially during World War II.

The first Tomatina was thrown in the summer of 1944 or 1945 during a local religious celebration. Based on popular feasts in the mid-20th century, it was likely the Corpus Christi celebration, featuring a parade of Gigantes y Cabezudos—large, costumed, papier-mache figures—accompanied by a marching band.

One popular Tomatina origin story details how a singer at the festival gave a dismal performance, and the townspeople, in disgust, snatched produce from vendors’ carts, tossing it at the singer. Another account details how the townspeople of Buñol expressed their political discontent by rocketing tomatoes at civic leaders outside of the city hall. Given the economic and political situation of Spain in the mid-1940s, both of these retellings are likely more fiction than fact. Food rations were common, meaning the townspeople would be unlikely to waste produce, and protests were often met with aggression by local police forces.

A more likely story is that a few teenagers, enlivened by the festival, either knocked over a pedestrian who began haphazardly throwing tomatoes or picked up tomatoes that had fallen from the bed of a passing lorry and threw them at each other, unknowingly creating one of Spain’s most popular annual events.

Whatever the case, law enforcement intervened, ending the first Tomatina festival. However, the practice gained popularity in subsequent years, with local people bringing tomatoes from home to participate in the festivities until it was officially banned in the 1950s.

La Tomatina participants in 2017
Pablo Blazquez Dominuguez / Getty Images

Burial of the Tomato 

Ironically, it was the ban of the tomato throwing festivities in the early 1950s that did the most to increase its popularity. In 1957, the townspeople of Buñol held a ceremonial tomato burial to express their discontent with the ban. They tucked a large tomato into a coffin and carried it through the streets of the village in a funeral procession.

Local authorities lifted the ban in 1959, and by 1980, the city of Buñol had taken over planning and execution of the festival. La Tomatina was televised for the first time in 1983, and since then, the festival has seen participation numbers increase dramatically.

Tomatina Revival

In 2012, Buñol began requiring payment for entrance to La Tomatina, and the number of tickets was limited to 22,000, though the previous year had seen upwards of 45,000 visitors to the area. In 2002, La Tomatina was added to the list of Fiestas of International Tourist Interest.

SPAIN-FESTIVAL-TOMATINA
AFP / Getty Images 

Festival-goers typically wear white to ensure maximum tomato carnage visibility and most don swim goggles for eye protection. Buses from Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia begin to roll into Buñol in the early hours of the final Wednesday in August, carrying sangria-drinking tourists from all over the world. Crowds gather in the Plaza del Pueblo, and at 10:00 a.m., a series of lorries carrying, as of 2019, more than 319,000 pounds of tomatoes drives through the crowds, passing out the vegetable ammunition.

At 11:00 a.m., a gunshot indicates the start of the 60-minute long tomato throwing festival, and at 12:00 p.m., another gunshot signals the end. Tomato-soaked tourists wade through the rivers of tomato sauce to awaiting locals with hoses or down to the river for a quick rinse before boarding buses and vacating the city for another year.

The original tomato throwing festival has sparked imitation celebrations in places like Chile, Argentina, South Korea, and China.

Sources 

  • Europa Press. “Alrededor de 120.000 kilos de tomates para tomatina de Buñol procedentes de Xilxes.” Las Provincias [Valencia], 29 Aug. 2011. 
  • Instituto Nacional de Estadística. Alteraciones de los municipios en los Censos de Población desde 1842. Madrid: Instituto Nacional de Estadística, 2019. 
  • “La Tomatina.” Ayuntamiento De Bunyol, 25 Sept. 2015.
  • Vives, Judith. “La Tomatina: guerra de tomates en Buñol.” La Vanguardia [Barcelona], 28 Aug. 2018.