Malta Diary ~ The Magnificent Seven – passion in the summer heat
Politics, religion, bitter rivalry and pique are never ever far away in these islands. But then, we are slap-bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Passions run high and the blood mix of a myriad of multi-cultured races is deep.
Festas are the fulcrum of almost unbelievable passions held on every week-end and on some week-days throughout the hot summer as each city, town and village celebrates its own with some marked distinctions between their celebrations. Some are famed for ground and aerial fireworks displays, some for street decorations, some for the finery of the parish statue – and there are many parishes. The majority are dedicated to various saints, some to the Madonna and some to Jesus Christ.
As pique would have it, some localities have more than one parish. Some parishes have two different festas as have some towns and villages and to cap it all, some festas have two or even three different band clubs celebrating the same event! Where none of the foregoing exist prestige and getting one over rival villages is the agenda. Large brass bands (some having a complement of over 100 street musicians) are an essential part of the external celebrations and, needless to say, more often than not these actually eclipse the internal, liturgical celebrations as far as the enthusiastic participants are concerned.
Band marches very much reflect Spanish street band music with a basis of trumpets, drums, clarinets and castanets and a march paced movement although in reality the actual pace is that of a snail with crowds pressing in on all sides. The club committee proudly march at the front under unfurled, colourful banners to which competition medals are clipped.
Band club colours and insignias are supremely important where more than one band is involved in the same festa. Red for one and blue for the other are the most popular, but also green and red and green and yellow, as well as nick-names.
In some localities, political affiliation underlies the rivalry. The capital city Valletta has two large parishes celebrating St Paul’s Shipwreck on 10th February (Malta’s patron saint and obviously not a summer festa) and St Domenic. The former parish has the La Valette Band and the latter the King’s Own Band Club. The origins of the former are Italian-based and historically Nationalist Party oriented whilst the King’s Own is distinctly of pro-British roots favouring the now defunct Constitutional Party and currently the Labour Party.
My neutrality (almost virtual) in this vast potpourri of fevered rivalry has to remain uppermost. However, I can safely say that this is the period where the – what I call – Magnificent Seven line up in succession for the most boisterous and most crowd pulling and chronologically they fall:
4th August, St Domenic, Valletta; 6th August, Our Saviour, Lija; 7th August (but celebrated on the first Sunday after), St Gaetano, Hamrun; 10th August, St Lawrence, Vittoriosa; 15th August, The Assumption to Heaven of St Mary eight in Malta (Attard/Dingli/Ghaxaq/Gudja/Mgarr/Mosta/Mqabba and Qrendi) and two in Gozo (Victoria and Zebbug); 24th August, St Helen, Birkirkara; 8th September, Our Lady of Victories (in Mellieha, Naxxar and Senglea in Malta and Xghajra in Gozo)
These are followed hotly on the first Sunday after 8th September by the Zabbar festa of Our Lady of Graces where two rival bands are so piqued that the police have often stepped in to curb the main band march.
The Our Saviour feast in Lija is one of the quaintest in one of Malta’s oldest villages in the central part of Malta where the Three Villages (Attard, Balzan and Lija) dominate. Their aerial fireworks displays are simply magnificent in quantity and display, classed as being one of the leaders in this field. The church facade is illuminated with fairy lights and street decorations are works of art.
Hamrun boasts none of these for the St Gaetano festa but they proudly claim the largest attendances (thousands upon thousands) for their band marches where pique and rivalry are so great that an actual contract has been drawn up to regulate time of start and finish, different routes and when routes clash, marching precedence – down to the very finest and most minute details!
Clashes of rival supporters are frequent (these festa celebrations are normally spread over three days and nights) and the straight mile long Hamrun High Street is a sea of red (St Gaetano Band Club) and blue (St Joseph Band Club) banners and flags during the main Sunday morning march. Limitless alcohol plays a major part.
One is reminded of the Orange Marches in Belfast, Northern Ireland except that these are same religion, same town and same festa celebration!
Vittoriosa is one of the three old Cottonera cities (Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa) carrying great historical significance. Unlike other statues the figure of St Lawrence is clad in a fine and precious lace costume and is stood on a grid commemorating his having been martyred by being burnt alive on a lit fire with grill (Joan of Arc style).
Santa Marija enjoys enormous popularity with celebrations in eight different localities in Malta and two in Gozo, besides being a national and religious holiday (throughout the Roman Catholic world). The main celebration is in Mosta with its vast dome and much renowned for fireworks.
Birkirkara (St Helen) is a Basilica, is enabled by The Vatican to sport red and yellow Basilica colours and enjoys the unique distinction of having its religious procession in the early morning.
Finally, 8th September is another Public Holiday and commemorates victory over the Turkish invasion in 1565 as well as the end of the Second World War and is mainly centred on Senglea but Mellieha is known for its fireworks displays.
Certainly there is never a dull moment in these islands but the RC Curia is worried about the bawdy celebrations and is intent on curbing them. Their chances of succeeding are remote.