MALTA DIARY: Has the spirit of Christmas been pawned and is now usurped by the lure of money?
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My only grandson Gabriel is five years old and well knows Christmas is on the way when he insisted in “helping” to put up our decorations that is, throwing tantrums unless he was allowed to interfere in everything!
He has also entered into the spirit of Christmas with a great zest, wanting to know every five minutes whether Santa “will bring me lots of presents”. Trying to explain the religious significance is a complete waste of time because the only aspect that matters is what Santa will bring in his sack and whether he is already making his way from Santaland.
In order to try and instil some sort of discipline throughout the year I drew out a chart that marks either + or – points according to appropriate or inappropriate behaviour, the final total representing the extent of presents (or lack of them) Santa will have in his sack for him.
At the latest count this chart has now plummeted to minus (-)15,368 but only produces a smug shoulder shrug from him – as if to say it will all work out well in the end and I will still get my presents.
A far cry from my boyhood days so long ago, days of no twinkling and sparkling street lights, rudimentary twinkling lights at home, cheap paper decorations hanging from our ceilings adorned with a few balloons and no televisions to constantly plug all the commercialism of fantastic toy presents, turkeys roasting in ovens with all the trimmings and yummy, yummy boxes of chocolates.
It has all changed of course and all the priorities have been reversed. The religious element has sunk to rock bottom and the only element plugged is commercial spend, spend and spend.
So, what was a Maltese Christmas like all those many years ago? The last thing a boy or a girl asked for were presents, mainly restricted to ONE present from parents anyway, a toy vehicle for a boy, a doll for a girl. There was also the occasional money half-a-crown from a Godparent or a grandparent, but this was not traditionally a Christmas but a New Year present known as “strina”.
The emphasis was on the religious element – looking forward to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, a splendid and lengthy affair but tiresome for a child! If one were old enough to have taken a First Communion, Communion was obligatory and in those days preceded by a 12 hour fast of no food and no liquid – to purify the body to receive the Holy Host.
Heaven forbid that a child be caught nibbling a biscuit or sipping a glass of water – followed by a ban from taking Communion and much finger-wagging and lectures about subsiding to the sins of the flesh, not keeping the straight and narrow path to Heaven and how Baby Jesus has been deeply offended.
The fast was made even more dire by my father bridging the time to go to church by preparing the next day’s Christmas lunch with all its delicious aromas. Incidentally, it would have been my dad’s birthday today – so thanks for the memories dear dad.
Eating out was non-existent. Restaurants throughout Malta and Gozo could be counted on one’s hands and only for the rich and famous. All culinary entertainment was at home, either being invited to relatives or inviting relatives.
The highlight of the Midnight Mass – always – was the traditional sermon by a young altar boy, using many Latin quotations which neither he nor most of the gathering could understand anyway. The tradition of the child sermon has been maintained but nowadays of course also including girlie sermons.
Christmas Day was a day of thrills and sensations – the lunch cooking, the present to be unwrapped and wondered at and much hugging and kissing and reciting of prayers.
Christmas cribs were and remain immensely popular, all home made with all the paste miniatures and nowadays highly mechanised and some electronised but mainly based on the old Neapolitan cribs, to be revered and for children to be lectured about the baby Jesus in the crib in the manger, the roles of the Virgin Mary and St Joseph, why the shepherds were featured and the gifts the Three Kings had brought – and the significance of it all.
All cribs are heavily adorned with various specially grown vegetable shoots, grown in a dark cupboard to ensure they remain a pale white and do not turn green. In Maltese, these are known as ‘gulbiena’ (vetches in English) and were mainly bean shoots, wheat grains or even canary seeds, sprinkled onto a piece of white cloth and regularly watered. Around a crib they assume the appearance of bushes, yellowish-white at the base with green tips on exposure.
Lunch was a splendid and lengthy affair beginning with a rich chicken broth with loads of vegetables, followed by an overflowing plate of baked macaroni. Turkey was rare, so it was roast chicken or roast pork with lashings of baked potatoes and a variety of vegetables.
Desserts and sweets were also highly traditional and had their own distinct roles of Christmas association. The Communion fast after Midnight Mass was broken with a hot chestnut and chocolate drink laced with drips of orange juice and various herbs.
Rings filled with home-made treacle, fig rolls and hot shortbread fig tarts were also highly popular as well as mince pies, jam tarts, sweet ricotta rolls and later the Christmas Pudding and the Christmas Log began to make their appearance – everything homemade and seasoned of course.
And, believe it or not, on this one special occasion, a child would be allowed to imbibe a small glass or two of sweet vermouth!
Carol singers were unknown but child choirs in churches as well as child processions were highly popular.
Some of the traditions remain, but sadly the whole is tarnished by the very truthful saying that money is the root of all evil. Church attendances have plunged although Midnight Mass is still well-attended.
Today’s emphasis is not the significance of Christmas but expensive presents, partying, binge drinking and an abundance of gourmet fare – the more exotic the better!
“To clear a spider’s web you first have to kill off the spider”.
To really clear a problem you have to eliminate the root cause.