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Carnival on the Maltese Islands
Carnival on the Maltese Islands
Carnival festivities on the islands are loud, colourful, boisterous and usually include late-night street parties, masquerade balls and parades, floats and costumes. When did the local population start celebrating it and why? Here’s all you need to know about your favourite holiday in Malta
Il-Karnival ta’ Malta, the Maltese carnival, has occupied an important place on the local calendar for just under five centuries, as it’s been celebrated since at least the mid-15th century, since the rule of Grand Master Piero de Ponte, around 1535.
Maltese carnival takes place every single year, without fail, except when the on-going COVID-19 pandemic insists that the celebrations be postponed, seven weeks before Easter. This year, carnival will fall on the 25 February, until 1 March, 2022.
Though we’ve given you a taster, let’s dive deep into the history of the Maltese carnival.
In Christian countries, carnival is regarded as the last opportunity to eat and make merry before Lent, the 40-day period of fasting in preparation of Easter.As previously mentioned, the general awakening for the carnival tradition on the islands has been around since around 1535, following the arrival of the Order of St John, during Pierio de Ponte’s reign. Officially taking place in the southern city of Birgu at the start, a number of knights played games and displayed their skills in pageants and tournaments as part of the festivities.
The Grand Master was not a fan of the fact that due to exaggerated banquets and masquerades, many arguments and brawls were caused.Therefore, at a general assembly of the knights, de Ponte made it clear that wild excesses would no longer be tolerated, especially since it was, oftentimes, members of the religious community who were causing the ruckus. Thus, only tournaments and other military exercises necessary to Christian knights to train for battle against the Turks were tolerated.
By 1560, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette felt that he too needed to reprimand his knights for going overboard with their festivities. He allowed the wearing of masks in public, which was forbidden in Malta during the rest of the year and the knights decorated the ships of the Order’s fleet in the harbour. It was during this time that decorated and festive floats started being used.
By 1639, the islands were ruled by Grand Master Giovanni Paolo Lascaris, who opted to issue a bando, which prohibited women from wearing masks and participating and attending balls organised by the knights’ auberges. If they were to break the rules, they would be publicly whipped. The Grand Master also ruled that no person could wear a costume that represented the devil. The women, as well as the knights, were not a fan of the rules and many blamed the Jesuit Father Cassia, the Grand Master’s confessor at the time. This caused considerable unrest and the Jesuit’s college was ransacked. They demanded that Lascaris expel the Jesuits from the island and close their church, which he did until the storm passed.
Till today, a Maltese idiom, Wiċċ Laskri, which translates to Lascaris’ face, is still used to describe a nervous and sad person.
True to an age-old tradition, Carnival was ushered into Maltese tradition as the knights and local population in general took the celebrations very seriously. Evidence shows that by 1730, we had our first street parades. At this time, it was customary for some peasants and later, companies of young dancers to gather under the balcony of the Grand Master’s palace in Valletta and wait eagerly until they received formal permission from him to hold the carnival. The necessary permission would be obtained and a proclamation giving the go-ahead would be read from the balcony.
Next, companies dressed as Christians and Turks would perform a mock fight recalling the Great Siege of 1565 and a child representing a flag would be carried around the streets of the capital of Valletta.
Meanwhile, a stone would be hung from the Castellania, which is now the Ministry of Health on Merchants Street, as a sign that ‘justice would be suspended’ for the three days of carnival. The Sunday afternoon celebrations were usually led by the Grand Master’s carriage, flanked by cavalry marching to the beating of drums, followed by other decorated open carriages and finally, the decorated floats. In many ways, such celebrations mirrored the ones we have today.
In 1721, Grand Master Marc’Antonio Zondadari introduced the game of kukkanja to the carnival. Kukkanja involves a greased pole, at the top of which foodstuffs and livestock would be tied. The competitors would attempt to climb to the top and claim the prizes!
During the British period, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, carnival parades were noted for their satirical themes. In fact, many of the beautifully intricate floats were designed to poke fun at political figures and unpopular government decisions. That being said, political satire was banned as a result of a law that was passed later, in 1936.
The largest of the carnival celebrations take place mainly in and around Valletta and Floriana and include colourful floats, street parades, music, festive food and people dressed in outrageous costumes, both children and adults alike. The ‘city built for gentlemen’ turns into the city for fools during the carnival, as the city bursts at the bastions with phosphorescent floats, which are the mainstay of the celebrations. they feature massive cardboard structures, painted in an explosion of colours, as well as crazy costumes, crowds and blasting music.
There are several other carnival celebrations in other Maltese and Gozitan villages, including in Nadur, which is notable for its darker and more risque themes. The Gozitan carnival was first introduced in 1952. The Għaxaq carnival, for instance, is organised by the local community and involves the wearing of old-fashioned clothes, which people find in their wardrobes.
Carnival festivities on the Maltese Islands are loud, colourful, boisterous and usually include prolific late-night street parties, masquerade balls and parades, as well as spirited costume wearers, music, marching bands and artistic displays. It is truly not one to be missed!