As we have become more established here, we have found that participating in the wonderfully full social/activity life here, combined with visitors – wall to wall from October to December – precludes a regular update of this newsletter. So it will continue, but more sporadically, as items of interest crop up.
Christmas loomed large, and since Christmas in Malta has its own idiosyncrasies, I will begin there. Malta is a very Catholic country, but as I have said elsewhere, although devout, there is a strong element of fun in most of their celebrations.
The first thing that strikes a tourist at this time of year are the “illuminations” which could put Blackpool’s to shame. Every town has colourful lights in shapes of trailing comets, stars, trees, angels, waterfalls etc etc – the list is endless. They really are a delight. There is almost an advent calendar approach to the decorations, with each day resulting in a new layer of streamers, balloons, lights, stuffed animals, gaily decorated Christmas trees in all the towns and culminating in the sudden manifestation of a massive public ice-rink surrounded by a “german Christmas market” close to the day in the Sliema shopping centre – complete with gluhwein, hot food in rolls, hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts.
Father Christmas makes many an appearance too, but not upright or seated as elsewhere in Europe. Here he has the demeanour of a burglar in a red and white suit carrying a black swag-bag swung over his shoulder as he clambers (affixed invisibly) over balconies, parapets, and hangs from window sills, drain pipes and sundry other ledges by his plastic/inflatable fingernails. He always has a jolly smile on his face, though.
The traditional, religious celebrations centre around Christmas Eve midnight mass, but in the run-up to Christmas, Malta has a special feature. This is the Maltese crib, which is, in summary a nativity scene accompanied by elements of day to day Maltese rural life. These cribs are extraordinary and have a long history.
Most houses have one as well as a Christmas tree, and these are small but complex affairs. Those to be found in churches and large public buildings are much bigger, often greater than life-size.
Cribs were first introduced to Malta from Italy in the middle ages. The first truly Maltese crib was built in our local town of Rabat in 1617, and the Benedictine convent of St Peter in the Silent City (nearby Mdina) houses and treasures one dating from 1670. At around the same time, one man made a crib with moving parts powered by water. The originals had Italian buildings represented and the figures used in the tableaux were of expensive porcelain. As the crib grew in popularity, the Maltese replaced the foreign buildings with more local items e.g. flour windmills, wells and animal pens and swapped the porcelain for less expensive plaster. Nowadays, the Maltese ingenuity produces cribs in many shapes, sizes and materials. There are many crib exhibitions where local people place their efforts – all very good – on show for the public. In one such exhibition I saw cribs ranging from tiny glass figures in an eggshell decorated opulently in the Faberge style, to huge, greater than life-size moving figures including a blacksmith shoeing a horse, his movements and that of the other figures powered by electricity. Papier-mache , wool, wood, glass, pebble,newspaper and much more are all used to great artistic effect.
Two special cribs worth a mention are the Living Crib, where the figures are played by locals with real animals and a real baby in the structure. They “work shifts” round the clock and the big one in Gozo was said to have involved over 1000 people. The other one is a massive crib built from salt, which formed the centre-piece of the Christmas Fair at the Ta’ Qali sports/conference centre down the hill from us. The ingenuity of these folk knows no bounds.
By the mid 20th century, cribs were deemed no longer fashionable, and Christmas was losing its charisma. A local priest, George Preca in 1921 organised a procession through Ħamrun in which a life-size figure of the baby Jesus was paraded through the streets on the shoulders of four local boys. The people crowded Ħamrun’s poorly lit streets and brought any light source they could use, including palm frond torches, bicycle lamps (gas powered then!), Venetian lights, and oil lamps so that they could shed light on the baby as it was paraded through the town. It was an instant success with people of all ages and has become an integral part of the pre- Christmas pageantry in most towns, as well as helping to reinstate the crib as a celebratory reminder of the religious story of Christmas.
One final note on the cribs, especially the domestic ones, which are usually made out of natural materials. The tradition is to sow wheat, grain and millet onto cotton pads in a flat pot, water and leave in the dark until grass-like shoots appear. The “crop” or grassy area is then placed in the correct position in the crib.
Christmas church services have a few idiosyncrasies here too. The figure of the baby is put onto the main altar of the church at midnight on Christmas Eve for the celebration of Midnight Mass, and the three wise men are added to the crib at Epiphany.
The sermon of the Midnight Mass service is often delivered by a child aged 7 – 10, instead of the priest. The children learn it by heart for 4 – 6 weeks before the ceremonials, and tell the story of the nativity and try to give it some personal relevance to touch the hearts of the congregation. George Sapiano was an altar boy who delivered the first of these sermons in 1883 in Luqa.
Christmas food is varied. Traditionally, the Maltese housewife kept her fattest rooster for the Christmas table, which was customarily too big for the domestic oven and, together with that of her neighbours was roasted in the ovens of the local bakery, dedicated to that purpose for the day. Vegetables would be roasted with it and pudding was a traditional treacle ring, and the meal would be finished with a hot chestnut and cocoa soup. British rule from 1800 to 1964 saw this traditional fare ousted for the more familiar, turkey with trimmings, Christmas pud and mince pies. Italian pannetone now runs Christmas cake a close second.
My final element in this description of the traditions of Malta at Christmas is that of charitable giving. It is a time of generosity and under the patronage of the President of Malta, the Community Chest Fund which is a charitable fund, sets up a tent in Freedom Square in Valletta. It is manned by volunteers who encourage passers-by to make donations of cash, which is in turn distributed to the needy in keeping with a true spirit of Christmas. This is yet another fascinating aspect of Malta, where the emphasis is on community and kindness is the norm.
For the record, Lawrence and I amalgamated the two cultures in our christmas dinner. Instead of turkey we had lampuki pie (a local fish speciality) and Christmas pud for dessert. Felt right somehow. So, that is that for another year. Not sure what I have left to write about next Christmas, but something will doubtless sprout up!
Until next time.