November: Malta’s Macabre Month
November: Malta’s Macabre Month
We examine Malta’s rich cultural and spiritual traditions celebrating life, and the memories of the deceased
Each year, Malta marks November — or, ix-xahar tal-mejtin (“Month of the Dead”), as it is known — with religious traditions celebrating loved ones who have departed the world of life. Commemorated primarily on 2 November with the festival of L-Ghid tal-Erwieh (literally, “the word of souls”), this long-standing tradition is punctuated by the toll of church bells, extended access hours to cemeteries and special festive sweetbreads called Għadam tal-mejtin (“dead men’s bones”) — see page 34 — with thoughts and prayers turning to the deceased, as well as to celebrating life.
Festivities dedicated to the dead are an established and important part of many belief systems around the world, with Halloween perhaps the most recognisable today due to its relatively recent large-scale adoption in North America through European colonialisation, and the arguably heavily-commercialised nature of the holiday today. The roots of this within Christianity may be — in part, at least — attributed to the Gaelic festival of Samhain, a spiritual practise dating back to Celtic paganism and first incorporated into Western Christianity in the 9th century as All Saints’ Day (or, All Hallows’ Day). Characterised by gatherings and feasts, costumes, the opening of burial mounds and offerings of food and drink for the spirits of the deceased, the influence of Samhain in similar Christian festivities, while not directly clear, may be inferred by the remarkable similarities common to both.
In Malta, the spiritual nature of the feast is largely focused on the memories of the departed, and the idea of redemption, a philosophy central to Christian ideology. Throughout L-Ghid tal-Erwieh, people honour the dead and attempt to assist the spirits of those in purgatory — a temporary place between the earthly realm and the afterlife where the spirits of the deceased undergo a form of spiritual cleansing, or purging, before passing on — with offerings and prayers. These are seen as able to assist those in purgatory, providing atonement through charitable acts, ceremonies and feasts.
In the modern world, many of the more traditional aspects of ix-xahar tal-mejtin are no longer practised, with such examples including the donating of vegetables and the communal cooking of roast pork. In the past, the local community would donate vegetables to the Franciscan order of monks, who would use these to make a soup called il-minestra tal-erwieh, something which, in addition to the roasted pork mentioned above, now survives primarily as part of a feast on 2 November called L-ikla tal-Għid l-Erwieħ (“The Easter Meal of the Souls”). This meal is replete with symbolism and includes: an alcoholic drink mixed with fruit, signifying the sweetness yet bitterness of life; toast topped with garlic and parsley, to signify the mourning of deceased loved ones; the aforementioned vegetable soup, included for its traditional relevance and to represent the act of charity; roasted pork, referencing a sacrificial offering, and finally the “dead men’s bones” as discussed earlier in this article. The latter are included to remind us that, eventually, only bones will remain of our time here on earth — a stark, if sombre, look at the journey of life into death.
One tradition that is still practised on a communal level, albeit to a lesser extent than in the past, is the procession of masked fraternities collecting funds for a mass dedicated to the souls of those who have died. These masks typically feature iconography related to death and the afterlife, with such examples including ghost-like visages and skulls.
In all, despite the somewhat macabre nature of Malta’s “Month of the Dead”, it is, without doubt, a fascinating occasion and something not to be missed. Though widespread adherence to many of its customs has undeniably been reduced in the face of a changing, modernised society, its poignant symbolism and underlying cultural importance remains a constant, if slightly diminished, presence. Though many of the festival’s traditions now continue mainly as culinary representations, these nonetheless keep this rich heritage alive in Malta, and, who knows, perhaps more conversations around the dinner table now and into the future will echo with hushed tones paying homage to departed loved ones, and, most importantly, celebrating life.