Carnival in Malta today is the same as boisterous excuse for revelry that is has been for centuries. It certainly shows no sign of becoming a dying tradition among the many festas, events and ceremonies that colour a visit to the Maltese islands. Carnival today in Malta is a week of heady activity; a time to join in street processions and enjoy the company neighbours and friends outdoors again after the winter. In a sense, carnival is the first rite of Spring. If you are travelling around Malta and Gozo at carnival time, you are bound at some time to find yourself swept up in a swirling crowd decked out in elaborated masks.
In contrast with ‘Merry Carnival’, Holy Week is solemn and sombre. On these days, the Maltese, like so many others, commemorate the passion, the death and resurrection of Christ. Essentially, the celebrations are of religious character and the Maltese flock to their churches in great numbers. The climax of the ‘Holy Week Celebrations’ is reached on Good Friday afternoon. The Maltese call ‘Good Friday’ ‘Il-Gimgha l-Kbira’ (the most important Friday of the year). This is a day of general mourning: cinemas, places of entertainment and offices are kept closed.
The procession, which starts at about 5pm consists of a number of life-size statues depicting scenes from the passion of Our Lord. Good Friday processions are somewhat long and apart from the statues, about on hundred and fifty participants take part. Some of them are dressed in contemporary costumes re-enacting scenes from the Old Testament and from the Life and Passion of Christ. Others, in fulfilment of a vow, are dressed all in white or grey with a hood covering their faces and carrying wooden crosses.
The feast of Saint Peter and Paul on June 29th marks an important event in the calendar of Maltese popular customs and festivities. Traditionally known as ‘L-Imnarja’, it goes back further to even before the coming of the Knights in 1530 and is essentially a country folk-festival. Following closely the hard toils of harvest time, it made a pleasant break in the dull everyday routine that made up the peasant’s life in the past – a few crowded hours of merrymaking and rustic song amidst a yearly routine of sweat and toil working the land.
There is something unusually captivating about the typical Maltese village feast or “festa”. The incessant pealing of the bells during festa week are not just a summons to an ordinary church service, instead they mark the beginning of five consecutive days of spiritual preparation which whole families flock to, in attendance of the solemn thanksgiving on the morning of the patron saint’s day (usually Sunday).
On the eve of the feast day, a Mass of Thanksgiving is said in the morning. When Mass is over, a hymn of praise is sung which is known as the “Te Deum” from the first words of the Latin hymn “We praise you Lord”. Bouquets of flowers are arranged around the imposing life-size statue of the Patron Saint in a central position in the nave. The statue is, in many instances, beautifully carves in wood. In the evening, the holy relic is carried in procession from a side chapel to the High Altar. Solemn Vespers and Mass conclude the function.
Colourful fireworks are let off on the eve of the feast day normally between 10:00pm and 11:00pm. This particular display is known as “giggifogu” which is a corruption of the Italian “guoco di fuoco”. The Maltese also refer to fireworks in general as “loghob tan-nar” (literally, fire-games), while coloured rockets are known as “murtali tal-kulur”.
On the Feast day a Solemn High Mass is sung in the morning. During this Mass a preacher gives a eulogy on the virtues of the Patron Saint to exhort the faithful to lead a more exemplary life. This oration is known as the panegyric (in Maltese “panigirku”). Solemn Vespers are held again in the evening, and the procession follows. This statue is carried shoulder-high to the accompaniment of brass bands. As the procession winds its way very slowly through the streets, the statue is showered with confetti.
Coloured rockets are let off well into the night. A special display of these takes place as a procession re-enters the church. This is known as the “kaxxa infernali” (a corruption of the Italian “cassa finale” meaning the last box). The Saint’s relic is also carried in procession by a high church dignitary. Those taking part in the procession include various groups of monks, priests wearing richly embroidered church vestments, and the “fratelli” (literally “brothers”), who are lay members of devotional associations (or confraternities). Each group of fratelli is known as “fratellanza”. The members wear colourful robes and they walk behind a huge banner, known as “L-Istandard”, which is the ensign of their group.