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Do you know the history behind il-Karnival?

Photo: maltatina.com

Carnival is one of the oldest historical festivals in Malta, with just under five whole centuries of credited and documented history, dating back to the Knights’ of St John! New artistic creations are born, while traditions are kept alive and revived, particularly with the revival of satire, a fundamental facet to the historical Maltese Carnival.

‘The Carnival Mad Days’

Carnival is celebrated across the globe, with celebrations known for their colour and vibrant atmosphere, as well as a dash of satire. In terms of the Maltese carnival, it features distinct floats, masks and choreographed dances. While the first local Carnival celebrations can be traced back to the 1400s, it was only until the 1530s that Carnival reached its peak popularity on the islands! The arrival of the Knights of Jerusalem and the reign of Grandmaster Pierino Del Ponte gave birth to ‘The Carnival Mad Days’, where for three consecutive days, nobles and cavaliers donned the finest wigs and clothing to attend masked balls, tournaments and feasts in Birgu, in the south of Malta.

Eventually, these celebrations, as many things do, got out of hand, fuelling the Grandmaster’s scorn. During Grandmaster Giovanni Paolo Lascaris’ reign, an order was issued to ban costumes related to the devil and to prevent women from wearing masks and attending balls, which were hosted by the Knights.

Kitchen themed float in 1933

Photo: Lea Francis Ellis

Both the Maltese, as well as the stationed Knights, blamed Lascaris’ confessor, who was a Jesuit priest. This resulted in attacks on the Jesuit church. They were then removed entirely from Malta, in order to keep the peace.

Fun fact: Grandmaster Lascaris’ name found its way into the Maltese language through the expression ‘wiċċ laskri’, which translates to someone having a long face, derived from the fact that the Grandmaster was never seen smiling.

Due to the ever-increasing popularity of the Carnival festivities, the parties were eventually extended to a full five days, with rival celebrations taking place both in Valletta and Floriana. The rivalry brought about innovative celebrations, including finely decorated horses and carriages, fireworks and even the participation of the Grandmaster himself!

Carnival traditions

As the years wore on, other Carnival traditions followed suit, including floats pulled by mules, the Qarċilla, which is a fake satiric wedding, which still takes place today, and the Kukkankja in St George’s Square, Valletta, a game still popular in Gozo, where participants must climb a greasy pole while avoiding obstacles. The folk dance il-Maltija also made an appearance at the festivities, with most attending dance lessons after the Christmas period in preparation.


The Kukkanja

Photo: Cocagna 18th Century - MUZA / Facebook

After World War I

After World War 1, the ‘Carnival Committee’ was established, paving the way for the Carnival we know and love today. The Committee set up several different categories for the floats, dance companies and decorated carriages, as well as regulations and prizes for the winners. The main attraction of the event was the ‘King of Carnival’ float, which is still ingrained in the local tradition till today. With the Committee’s involvement, this satiric celebration regained its prestige in Malta, being marked as an important part of our Islands’ heritage.

Gozo also has its own Carnival Committee, which organises the Carnival in Victoria, with an emphasis on traditional Carnival practices and the spontaneous Carnival in Nadur. After year-long preparations and collaborations between entities, friends and artists, all the participants come together in a celebration of unity, entertainment and creativity. The Carnival as we know it today has come a long way as it developed through time, resulting in a major event loved by all.