The History of Carnival and What to Expect From This Traditional Event

The History of Carnival and What to Expect From This Traditional Event

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, which will be held between 17 and 21 February

Carnival in Malta is a much-loved historical and traditional event that has been documented for centuries, with the earliest one dating back to the early 1500s. The carnival, which in Maltese is known as ‘Il-Karnival ta’ Malta’, includes many bright and colourful floats, quirky and creative costumes and an abundance of art and music.

The carnival is held right before Lent, which is 40 days of fasting in preparation for Easter. It allows people to indulge in the foods they would otherwise not be able to eat throughout this religious period.

Il-Karnival ta’ Malta, the Maltese carnival, has occupied an important place on the local calendar for just under five centuries. Originally having started in Vittoriosa/Birgu in the 1500s, the carnival rose in popularity after the Knights of Jerusalem arrived during the reign of Grandmaster Pierino Del Ponto. A number of knights played games and displayed their skills in pageants and tournaments as part of the festivities. These events combined, birthed the carnival and how it was known back then as, ‘The Carnival Mad Days’. Attending an array of events such as masked balls, knights and nobles would show off their clothes and wigs.

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.

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.

This event brings communities together and if you’re travelling to the islands during this time, it can be an event to add to your list. Although the carnival is far more than just a tourist attraction, tourists can explore some of the Maltese culture and history and become familiar with just one of the island’s many traditions.

valletta carnival

Photo cREDIT: Ronny Siegel

If you’re planning on attending, you can expect late-night parties, marching bands, mask and dress competitions and many more exciting festivities and activities. Traditional foods such as ‘perlini’ and ‘prinjolata’ are always popular at the carnival. ‘Perlini’ are pure almonds, coated in a sugar paste of light, pastel colours. ‘Prinjolata’ is a traditional Maltese carnival dessert. The dessert is a mixture of crushed biscuits and spongecake, along with pine nuts, candied cherries, other nuts, chocolate drizzle and either Italian meringue or buttercream.

Preparing for the carnival for many begins months before it takes place- sometimes, even a full year. People aim to construct their floats uniquely and exaggeratedly to catch the eye of everyone there. The float creators put a lot of time and effort into these floats as they can express themselves whilst giving the crowd a show they won’t forget. Everything from bright colours to floats with high-quality sound installations, crowds can expect grand displays and not be left disappointed. Some would even go to the extent of having DJs play from the stand while on the moving float, making their way down the parade.

Carnival takes place in Malta’s beautiful capital city, Valletta, throughout Republic street, St. Georges Square and St. Johns Square. Prizes will be given out in the following categories;

· Best artistic dancers

· Best costumes

· Grotesque masks and floats

Although the capital city has the largest and most popular displays for the carnival, other localities around the island also have their own celebrations.


Over on the sister island of Malta, Gozo also loves to celebrate the carnival, particularly in Nadur. Celebrated in Independent Square and Nadur Square, you can expect eye-catching floats, foods and drinks being served out on the street, crazy costumes and crowds everywhere you look. The carnival in Nadur is also known as the ‘Nadur Spontaneous Carnival’ in which there are no rules. If that isn’t enough, an array of creatures (hooded and masked of course) take over the streets when the sun goes down. Food and refreshments will also be offered throughout the night to ensure your energy is at peak level. Other towns in Gozo such as Zebbuġ, Xewkija and Xagħra will also be celebrating events if you like to venture out and visit a town you perhaps haven’t before.

It is strongly advised to plan ahead to avoid long queues – especially if you’re travelling from either island.