A Maltese Christmas
Christmas in Malta
Malta is beautiful at any time of the year, but has a special charm at Christmas both for its spirituality and its social aspect. The islands are awash with colour and evidence of the people’s deep religious roots can be seen in the exorbitant number of nativity scenes and cribs from private homes to chapels and virtually every other building in Malta. Yes, the Maltese are catholic Christmastide is the season that this is most abundantly clear.
Christmas Shopping and Decorations
The streets of the commercial centres around Malta are brightly decorated with intricate lighting to create a dazzling effect which is further enhance with the limestone architecture; most vividly displayed in the capital of Valletta, but also in the other shopping centres of Sliema and Mosta. The Maltese also decorate their own homes both inside and out so that just about everywhere you look you’ll see Christmas lights. In some villages, you’ll find large Christmas trees in the village square enhancing the already picturesque scene against the local limestone Baroque churches, creating a fairy-tale panorama; most notably in the village of Siggiewi where the patron saint is the one and only St Nicholas. The church itself is enveloped in lights (being the only parish church in Malta to have its patron’s feast at this time of the year) and the Christmas tree along with other decorations completes the scene.
Popular Christmas carols have been translated in Maltese, however Fr. Andrew Schembri (1774-1862) wrote a couple of original Maltese Christmas carols including ‘Ninni la tibkix izjed’ (Sleep, don’t cry anymore), this lullaby for Baby Jesus is one of the most popular carols in Malta.
There is no better way to enjoy a traditional Christmas in Malta than to attend Christmas mass in one of the majestic churches or quaint chapels. For a very special, spiritual evening, you shouldn’t miss the candlelit carol singing at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. Other parish churches across the Islands are just as impressive during advent. Their interiors are adorned in papal crimson and the altars with flowers. Midnight masses are held in many of these churches, but without doubt the pick is the one at the Cathedral in Mdina, Malta’s ancient silent city. The setting here is so serenely perfect. Celebrated by the arch-bishop of Malta, the mass as with most at Christmas in Malta, begins with The Sermon of the Child (Il-Priedka tat-Tifel) – a Christmas sermon delivered by a young boy aged 7 to 10 years. It is a tradition that has survived from the late nineteenth century. The sermon is thoughts for the Christmas period seen from a child’s sincere point of view. The child usually takes several weeks learning the sermon by heart.
Following midnight mass many people (particularly the youth) partake in a traditional Champagne Breakfast, consisting of a full range of breakfast items. The breakfast finishes at around 3am, leaving one positively stuffed like a Christmas turkey before the sun has even risen. And of course, for the Maltese, food is extremely important for any celebration so the gorging doesn’t stop there. Christmas lunch is celebrated with the family with great gusto and in large quantities. This is either at home or, as has become increasingly popular, in restaurants and hotels.
In the past, Maltese Christmas lunch would have been made from the fattest rooster, which would be roasted in a casserole that would contain potatoes and vegetables, this would be followed by a treacle ring (“qagħaq tal-għasel“) for dessert. The traditional Maltese dishes are still served in many places but the British influence means that turkey and all the trimmings is now more commonly served for Christmas on the island.
A delight for the whole family is to view the nativity scenes and cribs that are found profusely throughout Malta, in every village and practically every home. For young and old, visiting cribs is a popular activity at Christmastime and many locals spend time going around touring the various ‘presepju’ displays. Some ‘presepju’ are marvellously artistic and elaborate, crafted with minute detail and having figures that move around mechanically with the astounding detail that comes from hours of meticulous work by dedicated craftsmen. You will find some so large, they fill a room and several villages have displays of cribs from participants in competitions so there can be dozens of them in one place for you to judge for yourself.
If these nativities scenes don’t satisfy your need for a true Maltese Christmas experience, then the live nativity village in Ghajnsielem in Gozo offers just that. In 2008 some abandoned fields close to the village centre were converted into a Nativity village. It was so successful with the Maltese that it has been repeated annually ever since. Over 150 actors take part in this live animation of a mini Bethlehem, complete with craftsmen going about their work, farmers and shepherds, and of course the Holy Family as centre of attention. This quaint (and free) attraction is open on most days from early December to of January. There is a blacksmith, a baker, weavers and much more all out under the stars in the cool December air, reminiscent certainly of the night that Jesus was born.
‘Have a Merry Christmas’ or as the Maltese would say- ‘Il-Milied it-Tajjeb!’