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a brief history of easter in malta

a brief history of easter in malta

This April, as Malta prepares to celebrate Easter, we take a look back at the history of Christianity in the Maltese islands, and examine the traditions and festivities that have developed over the centuries, remaining to this day

The origins of the Catholic faith in Malta can be traced back to the 1st century, when, in approximately 60 AD, Paul the Apostle (originally Saul of Tarsus) was shipwrecked on Malta whilst en route from Greece to Rome as a political prisoner.

Traditionally, St Paul’s Island (also known as “Selmunett”) is located just off Malta’s northeast coast, close to the similarly-named St Paul’s Bay. Modern estimates, however, instead postulate the shipwreck’s location as being in the area of il Munxar near St Thomas Bay, due to the area’s prevailing north-easterly winds and the island’s submerged reef (a hazard for passing vessels) and sandy beach. Regardless of the veracity of either of these claims, however, what remains irrefutable is the long-lasting religious, cultural and historical impacts of this fated journey by sea almost two thousand years ago.

According to popular belief, following the shipwreck Paul and the remaining survivors received assistance from the local population, their experience of the event recounted by the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles as follows: “And later we learned that the island was called Malta. And the people who lived there showed us great kindness, and they made a fire and called us all to warm ourselves…”

Following the shipwreck, Paul’s luck, it seemed, did not immediately improve, with the Saint reportedly bitten by a poisonous snake soon after. Crucially, however, when placing this incident in the larger context of Malta’s religious history, the snake’s venom apparently caused Paul to suffer no ill effects, something that made a considerable impression on those providing assistance to the latent saint. In fact, legend states that not only did this incident immediately render the poison of all snakes on Malta inert, but additionally promoted kinder words and improved dialogue across the country — a diminishing of the ‘poison on people’s tongues’, so-to-speak.

It is said that the soon-to-be religious icon took refuge in a cave near Rabat, now referred to as St Paul’s Grotto, where he spent the winter months. It was from here the apostle began to teach the word of God, spreading Christianity across Malta during his visit. Most importantly, it was during this stay that he is said to have cured the father of Publius — the Roman overseer of Malta at that time — of a fever, an act that would lead Publius to convert to Christianity and formally establish the Catholic church on the island. Publius served as the island’s first Catholic bishop, with the Cathedral of Mdina said to stand on the site of his home.

These events formed the bedrock for Christianity in Malta, with Catholicism remaining the dominant and official religion of the country to this day. Indeed, this April sees His Holiness Pope Francis journey to Malta as part of an Apostolic Journey, his itinerary including visits to Valletta, Floriana, Rabat and the island of Gozo.

Easter is, of course, an important and widely celebrated festival for Christians. In the modern era, however, as with many other religious festivals such as Christmas, Santa Maria and the various saint days marked throughout the year, Easter is no longer purely the preserve of the devout. Since the industrial revolution, the role of religion in Western societies has gradually diminished, its once strong political and economic power base gradually replaced by a mainly societal and community-focused organisation. Similarly, its various festivities have inexorably evolved into predominantly cultural occasions, celebrated across a broad spectrum of society regardless of personal beliefs.
In Malta, this trend, while not as pronounced as in other Western countries — an EU survey published in 2019 reported that 83% of Malta’s population identified as Catholics (compared to only 7% in the UK the same year) — has nonetheless made its presence known. Despite this, however, Easter remains one of the most popular and widely celebrated religious festivals in Malta.

Ash Wednesday

ash wednesday

Celebrations begin with Ash Wednesday, taking place a month before the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows and marking the start of Lent. During this time, Christians may restrict their diet, often choosing to abstain from meat and sweet dishes, and/or opting to not consume certain meals. During mass, priests use ash to mark the foreheads of church attendees, spreading the ash in the shape of a cross.

feast of our lady of sorrows

The Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows follows, taking place the week before Good Friday, when a statue depicting Mary, mother of Jesus, is carried through the streets of Valletta and elsewhere in Malta. Traditionally, some of the devotees may walk barefoot, or with chains around their feet, to signify penitence and gratitude for receiving the grace of God.

palm sunday

Next comes Palm Sunday, taking place a week before Easter Sunday, and marking the commencement of Holy Week in Malta. On this day olive branches and palm leaves are blessed with Holy Water, before being used in processions taking place across the island.

maundy thursday

On Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, during mass the priest washes the feet of twelve attendees, symbolically representing the Twelve Apostles. Numerous community events take place, including the attending of Last Supper exhibitions and the Seven Visits, when Maltese families gather to visit seven churches, reciting prayers and admiring the Altars of Repose — temporary altars upon which the Sacramental bread, consecrated during mass on Maundy Thursday, is placed. Of particular note is the torchlit march starting at the village square of Siggiewi in the early evening, and ending at Laferla Cross located at the summit of Girgenti Hill.

good friday

Good Friday Procession

The next day, Good Friday is notable for its solemnity, with church bells across Malta falling silent in quiet remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent death. Numerous processions take place across the Maltese islands, with the marches in Żebbuġ and Xaghra (Gozo) of particular significance.

holy saturday

On Holy Saturday the mood remains similarly sombre until the evening, when crowds congregate in churches and village squares across Malta to celebrate the Rising of Christ. Churches across Malta begin services in almost total darkness, with the gradual rekindling of candles leading to a dramatic emergence of light coupled with the singing of hymns at a moment signifying Christ’s resurrection.

easter sunday

Easter Sunday marks the culmination of Easter celebrations in Malta, its joyous and celebratory atmosphere in stark contrast to the more sombre festivities preceding it. In the morning, church bells ring in celebration and numerous processions take place in towns and villages across the country. Band marches and other musical performances take place, as well as statues of Jesus being carried triumphantly through the streets to mark the Son of God’s return to earth.

Following these public celebrations, families meet for a lunch traditionally consisting of lamb, potatoes and vegetables, and consume sweets such as chocolate eggs and Malta’s famous Figolli — sweet almond cakes coated in icing sugar and decorated specially for the occasion.
In short, Easter in Malta is not only a time of considerable ecclesiastical festivities, but an important cultural celebration enjoyed by both Christians and those for whom religion might not otherwise feature strongly in their everyday lives. Replete with varied and engaging events open to the entire public, Easter in Malta truly represents a hugely significant occasion in the best traditions of community and shared spiritual experience, and is worth exploring for anyone with an interest in the many facets of life in Malta that make it such a remarkable place to live.