Frank L Scicluna

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birth You are not likely to have a white Christmas in Malta. Weather conditions resemble those of Betlehem, the birthplace of Christ. The temperature during Yuletide fluctuates from a maximum of 19 degrees Celsius to a minimum of 9C.

T he Christmas festival, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, is observed around the Christian world on the 25 December - the date believed to have been fixed by St Hyppolytus in the 3rd century. Christmas is a feast of peace and goodwill to all humans. Christmas is Christmas everywhere, but there are certain characteristics that make Maltese Christmas different from that of many other countries.

The streets of towns and villages are decorated and lit with multicoloured lights (festuni). Shop windows display the usual Christmas decorations and a large variety of toys and presents to lure Christmas shoppers who jam the streets. Christmas trees (is-sigra tal-Milied) and the figure of Father Christmas (Santa Claus) are seen all over the place. The main feature, which is a typically Maltese tradition, is the number of cribs (presepji) that can be seen in public places and in private homes.

The first Maltese crib we know of is that found at the Benedictine Nuns in Mdina and bears on its framework the year 1826. Another crib of the same period is found in Vittoriosa but this has been over restored and there is almost nothing left of the original structure. The main characters in the crib are naturally Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus together with the cow, the donkey and the sheep; and the three Kings who came to visit the new born baby bearing gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold.

Traditionally, the crib figurines (pasturi) were made of clay. Apart from the principal figures they include shepherds minding their flock, street singers, the shepherd's pipe and drum players, a farmer feeding the animals, woman carrying a flour sack, the sleeping man and the man sprawling on his stomach and perched on top of the grotto looking down at Baby Jesus. These fragile penny clay figurines were easily acquired few years ago. Nowadays modern plastic figurines are more commonly found in the Maltese family crib.

The tradition of building cribs in churches and homes began in the 13th century by the Franciscan friars. The actual crib where Christ was born was brought from Betlehem in the seventh century and is preserved at the Liberian Basilica in Rome.

The tradition of the Christmas tree and Christmas cards (il-kartolini tal-Milied) was imported from Germany in the 19th century. There is also a connection between the exchanging of presents and the feast of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus), the patron saint of children. Saint Nicholas was a bishop who lived in the 4th century and his feast is celebrated annually on the 5th December.

Nearly in every town and village a procession is held with children carrying a small statue of baby Jesus and singing Christmas carols along the way. In every parish church in Malta and Gozo during midnight Mass a small child, dressed as an acolyte, recites a sermon narrating the birth of Christ.

Christmas offers a splendid occasion for family gatherings. In most houses an attractively decorated Christmas tree is put up beneath which are placed the various presents wrapped in colourful paper. Christmas pudding (il-pudina tal-Milied) and turkey (id-dundjan) became popular during the first and second world wars when thousands of sailors and soldiers from the British Empire were stationed in Malta. The Island was a military and naval base for the allies. Prior to these wars a rooster (serduq), rather than turkey, was the bird to be served at Christmas dinner. The traditional Christmas banquet normally includes the delicious Maltese dish called timpana, backed macaroni covered with crusty pastry. A special kind of honey-and treacle rings (qaghaq tal-ghasel) are eaten during the Christmas festivities.

An old tradition that survived up to this day is the sowing of wheat, grain and canary seed (gulbiena) on clots of cotton in flat pans four weeks before Christmas and nurtured in the darkness of cupboards in the kitchen. These seeds shoot up and remain as white as Santa’s beard. They are then placed next to the infant Jesus and around the crib.

A custom which unfortunately vanished many years ago was the playing of bagpipes (iz-zaqq). They characterised the music of the shepherds who tended their flock on Christmas night. Folk memory in Gozo records that for the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve bagpipes were played in churches striking a genuine pastoral note.

The most popular Christmas carol, which is translated in every language on earth, is ‘Silent Night". Here is the Maltese version:

O Lejl ta’ Skiet - lejl tal-Milied
Lejl ghaziz - lejl qaddis
Dawwlet is-sema il-kewkba li ddit
Habbret li l-fidwa tal-bniedem inbdiet;


Kristu huwa mhabba bla qies!
Kristu huwa mhabba bla qies!


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