MALTA DIARY: Christmas in Malta – commercial yes, but old traditions maintained
The international cable television network CNN once described Malta as being “one of the world’s ‘most Christmassy’ destinations”. They were and are certainly not mistaken in that. Christmas in Malta has always been a very strong tradition and over the years has strengthened aligned to greater spending power and modern technology.
Commercialism has made great incursions yes by copying foreign traditions of exchanging presents (expensive to be impressive), binge eating and drinking and a round of never-ending dinner invitations, drinks and parties.
However, the religious message has also remained strong and annually appears to be more manifest than ever in what I interpret to be a signal of defiance that “these are our traditions and nothing and nobody will deter us or influence us to change them”. This is largely in defiance in the face of reports from various international quarters that Christmas should be “played down” so as not to offend non-Christians. It is a “this is where we stand” manifestation.
CNN reported thus: “Visiting presepju (cribs), or nativity scenes, is an integral part of Christmas in Malta.
“’Every year, residents proudly open their shutters, and sometimes even their garage doors, to display their holy crib confections to the public.
“On a grander scale, the Bethlehem in Ghajnsielem attraction is a life-size nativity experience spread over 20,0000 square metres of formerly abandoned fields.
“Inhabited and animated by more than 150 actors, including entire families, the village takes visitors back in time to Judea of 2,000 years ago, complete with oil lamps, turn mills, grazing animals, crafts areas teaching traditional skills and folklore, a tavern, and of course a grotto housing baby Jesus (i.e. complete with a recently born village baby and mother and father!)
“Valletta is also home to a lively Christmas spirit. Groups of carol singers gather and sing outside the Baroque St. John’s Co-Cathedral during Advent, and there is always a dizzying display of Christmas lights on Republic Street.
“The 400-year-old Manoel Theatre is well known for its annual Christmas pantomime.
“A visit to the privately owned Museum of Toys, featuring dolls, soldiers, train sets, and clockwork tin trinkets dating as far back as the 1790s, is a heart-warming homage to childhood.”
Malta has always been multicultural and therefore the basis of manifestations are Maltese with strong Italian and Spanish influences particularly in the creation of cribs (strongly inherited from Italy). These have naturally been infused with other wider-ranging traditions such as turkey Christmas lunches, mince pies, Christmas puddings, Christmas logs and Christmas trees as well as the international influences of festivals of light (‘dawl’ from ‘dawali’ celebrations).
Foodwise, original Maltese traditions include honey rings (round pastry rings infused with a honey and fig paste), honeyed dates and a delicious bowl of steaming roast chestnuts floating in thick liquid chocolate laced with either brandy or black rum.
Lunching and dining can be a strenuous stomach exercise starting with a bowl of steaming chicken/vegetable broth, piles of every form of pasta (baked macaroni, gnocchi with ricotta cheese etc), followed by turkey, or a slab of rolled pork stuffed with Maltese sausage meat – minced pork strongly peppered and laced with garlic and fresh coriander – a truck of roast potatoes with fennel and a selection of vegetables. I will leave the dessert to your imagination.
No Christmas would be complete without the traditional midnight Mass for packed congregations of families and the very traditional Christmas sermon delivered by a selected altar boy (or nowadays, a girl). When I was a boy (many years ago!), the poor youngster was made to learn the sermon by heart in Latin and to deliver it in Latin. The congregation understood nothing at all and neither did the boy. Nowadays it is thankfully delivered in Maltese.
Christmas cribs are displayed by the hundreds, each competing with each other to impress and nowadays highly mechanised with moving figures, running water streams, twinkling star lights and everything else possible. Some of them are massive, occupying a complete room or a garage opened for public display.
In recent years the Gozitan village of Ghajnsielem has stolen a march on all other areas with a live revival of the village of Bethlehem over an extensive area and depicting life in Judea at the time of Christ’s birth, engaging most of the villagers to play some part or other.
This year, the eight successive edition they are promising a larger-than-ever event and have provided greater road and parking access.
Top all of these with extensive streets lights almost everywhere, Christmas shopping, Father Christmas’s ho, ho, hoeing and clanging bells everywhere, carol singing, pantomimes, concerts, endless family gatherings and office parties and everything possible to ensure that you just cannot get away from Christmas in Malta – unless you decide to exile yourself to the tiny island of Filfla which is just a barren rock of a few square metres some kilometres off the Zurrieq coast in the south of Malta.
Needless to say the true spirit of Christmas has to be oiled with endless tots of alcoholic fortification at its very best. In my childhood even children would be given tots of Vermouth – thankfully no longer.
Indeed, whichever way one looks at it, Malta just has definitely to be one of the most Christmassy places in the world.