Malta Diary Carnival – time to let your hair down or is it just an excuse for wanton revelry? To be correct or incorrect – that is the question nowadays
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In a couple of weeks’ time Malta and Gozo will be celebrating their Carnival weekend – an event with centuries of chequered history and transformation and very often a centre of controversy.
It is an annual event that has remained ever-popular, not quite ranking with Christmas and Easter, but certainly a close third! My late mother Pauline loved it to bits and always ensured she bought her tickets for the enclosure where dance troupes would perform.
Her enthusiasm was certainly not inherited by me. I always refused to wear a Carnival costume and my only concession was as a ten-year-old boy when I condescended to be photographed wearing an Arabian tarbush while clutching a lady’s handbag – looking very embarrassed!
When we moved to and lived in England all those years, over Carnival weekend she would be morose and despondent, nostalgically reminiscing it was “Carnival weekend”. To ease her despondency, her late elder brother Guzi always sent her a pile of photographs of the year’s floats and dances, pictures he painstakingly took himself or otherwise purchased from ‘The Times of Malta’.
The history of the event stretches back to the Middle Ages when the Knight Order of St John of Jerusalem ruled the roost in Malta. Starting on a Friday and stretching to Shrove Tuesday it preceded Ash Wednesday when all revelry and merry-making instantly died to be followed by 40 days of Lenten sackcloth, solemnity, fasting and abstinence.
However, as is the wont of humanity, what started off as an event to enable the peasantry to let their hair down and vent their grouses and grievances, it soon descended into depravity – from the very top!
The Knights were pledged to a life of celibacy and avoiding the carnal sins of the flesh. All that was conveniently forgotten over the Carnival period and titled ladies made the best of it with masks, provocative clothing and proving the lust of temptation.
For the poor it was a chance to hit back at their administrators, the Church and the Knights but in a very limited manner to avoid the aftermath of reprisals and the revenge of the Devil from the administrators they parodied, criticised and made fun of.
It was also the time for unlimited sweet-tooth indulgence, mainly perlini (sugared almonds coated in hard icing) and prinjolata (pronounced prin-yo-la-ta) pine nuts crushed with biscuits and sugar infused with a few drops of vanilla essence, baked pyramid shaped and then topped with butter cream and studded with fruit slices or nut.
The poor flocked around decorated floats waiting to be showered with perlini to devour but sometimes these turned into slinging matches and the impact of an iced sugar almond on the face and other parts must have hurt!
Over the years the traditional Carnival defile’ grew and grew and the floats became more stingingly satirical with depictions of politicians and clerics. However, in the latter part of the 20th Century these became more politically correct and were mainly based on fairy tales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jack and the Beanstalk and the like.
More recent years has seen the return of satire, mostly political and the emergence of a rival to the Valletta Carnival in the Gozitan village of Nadur which shot to fame for its eerie and haunting depictions of trolls and devils and a general wanton atmosphere.
Controversy in Malta never lacks and the definition of Freedom of Expression and (in brackets) humour, never lacks. This year, weeks before the actual main event in Valletta, a Carnival company (company not in a commercial limited liability company sense but a troupe) devised a satirical float depicting Malta’s Archbishop, a religious institution and alleged child paedophilia.
All hell broke loose and the troupe was forced to amend their float to make it less obvious in its intention.
Indeed, the very term ‘Freedom of Expression’ has become like a string of chewing gum in Malta, involving the Law Courts and legal interpretations and sometimes heavily relying on political interpretation.
Well, as we always say, never a dull moment in Malta!
“His eats controversy like he eats bread”
This alludes to a fastidious person who is always seeking ways and means to create issues over something or other.