time to explore with esplora

The historical and modern significance of Malta's most celebrated feast

The historical and modern significance of Malta's most celebrated feast

mosta dome

We take a closer look at Malta’s Feast of Santa Marija, and discuss the historical and modern significance of the country’s most celebrated religious festival

This August, Malta celebrates the Feast of Santa Marija, an important occasion in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox calendars, and a thriving cultural celebration across Malta and Gozo. Taking place in early to mid-August and also known as the Feast of Our Lady of Assumption, the festival reaches its climax on 15 August and celebrates the ascension of the Virgin Mary to heaven.

Known to Eastern Orthodox practitioners as the Dormition — or, “falling asleep”, signifying Mary’s peaceful ascension to heaven — of the Mother of God, the Feast of Santa Marija holds special significance in the Christian tradition, and especially so in Malta. Not confined to a purely religious affair, the feast is marked by a public holiday across the Maltese islands, this year falling on the third Monday in August.

As a country with a long and established history of Christianity, Malta’s devotion to this particular feast remains strong to this day, with many towns and cities across the archipelago going to considerable lengths to celebrate a day which marks the closing chapter of the life of one of the faith’s most venerated figures. Like other feasts in Malta, the week leading up to the main event consists of various preparations, including the decorating of churches and streets with statues and banners, as well as several band marches. A more secular aspect to the feast is the large-scale migration of Malta residents to the island of Gozo, taking the opportunity to enjoy the long weekend in Gozo’s luscious green surroundings and quaint villages, as well as enjoying the impressive celebrations that take place in Victoria, the island’s chief citadel and cultural capital.

The main celebrations for Santa Marija take place in Għaxaq, Gudja, Ħ’Attard, Mosta, Mqabba and Qrendi in Malta, as well as Victoria in Gozo, as noted above. Of particular interest are the celebrations in Mqabba, which see the town play host to a spectacular fireworks display — this year entitled ‘The Tower of Light’ — specially choreographed and synchronised to music. You can check out previous years’ displays, as well as other feast-related videos, by visiting the ‘Santa Marija Mqabba’ channel on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/SantaMarijaMqabba.

Aside from the religious and community-based facets to the Feast of Santa Marija, the day also boasts an interesting historical element, and one which marks a vitally important event in Malta’s — and Europe’s — diverse history. Throughout World War II, the Maltese islands became a focal point for both Allied and Axis military efforts, serving as a base of operations for Allied air raids on Italian air and naval bases, and for disrupting resupply lines to Rommel’s North African campaign. Historians agree that without Malta’s role in the Allied war effort, territories in North Africa — and, most likely, the entire of the Mediterranean theatre — would have been lost to the Axis forces, resulting in catastrophic Allied losses and a significantly more difficult campaign to liberate Western and Central Europe.

Malta suffered tremendously at the hands of the German and Italian air forces for their resistance, with modern estimates placing the amount of bombs dropped on the islands throughout the war at a staggering 130 tonnes per square mile, as well as enduring a prolonged period of blockade — during which time vitally needed supplies of food and medicine were unable to reach Maltese ports.

On 15 August 1942, however, Malta’s prayers were answered, with five ships out of a convoy’s original fourteen successfully docking at Valletta’s Grand Harbour, bringing with them supplies imperative to the island’s survival. This, unsurprisingly, was seen as especially significant in the context of the day’s Santa Marija celebrations, and remains to this day a shining beacon of deliverance by one of the island’s most beloved saints and a powerful affirmation of the country’s faith.

For those visiting Malta during the 15 August celebrations, the islands offer a wealth of unique cultural experiences, with street parties and special religious ceremonies taking place across the country. On the 15th, a special ‘Marian Mass’ is held, following which a statue of Mary is carried out of churches and taken in procession through the streets. It is traditional for crowds to follow, singing and praying in celebration as the statue makes its way through the town. Finally, the day culminates in country-wide evening events, including firework displays and musical concerts — showing the Feast of Santa Marija to not only be an important religious and cultural event, but a fun and popular cause for celebration across the entirety of Malta.