Festivals are so ingrained in the identity and psyche of the Maltese people, that despite having immigrated away from the island more than 40-years-ago, my dad still watches his village “festa” online each year.
They’re a riot of tradition, colour, food, live bands, lights, fireworks, dancing, decorations and competitiveness. The best ones will assault all of your senses – they’re like nothing you’ve ever experienced.
From here on in, I’ll refer to the festivals as “festa” or “festi” (plural) because that’s what we’ve always called them and it feels so strange saying anything else.
Maltese Festi start with Catholicism, but seem to end in some solid partying. Don’t underestimate this tiny island in the Mediterranean – celebrating is a way of life.
They are the celebration of each village’s patron saint, usually the one that the church is dedicated to. They drip with tradition and solemnity in some parts, and all out, anything goes partying for the rest.
Think of the decorations you had for your 21st birthday party and multiply them by about 1000. Getting the village ready for the festa is a serious business and the Maltese go all out.
I’m not talking streamers and a few banners. These are specially designed and painted with grandeur in mind. There’s no such thing as going over the top, or “too much” in this case.
There are banners that stretch across the street, umbrellas, patron saint statues with lanterns lining streets, streamers, flags and everything else you can think of. More is more when it comes to this.
Then there are the churches. I’m not joking when I say that no expense is spared. We’re talking demask, gold, silver and every other precious thing you can think of.
The patron saint statue is brought out of its niche, into the church and surrounded by flowers – both real and from coloured wire, beads and jewels, called Ganutell.
Fireworks and Pyrotechnics
If there’s one thing I can guarantee you, it’s just not a Maltese festa without multiple fireworks shows. It’s such an important part of the week-long celebrations that most villages have at least one, if not two, fireworks factories.
The members work all year to stock pile enough fireworks to last for the week-long displays. They don’t just let them off at night either – you’ll often see a puff of smoke and hear them going off at all hours of the day during the festival week.
This display was put together by the 15 ta’ Awwissu Fireworks Factory, from Mosta, my Dad’s home village (sorry, I couldn’t help it) for a competition. When villages have more than one Fireworks Factory (“room of fire” if you translate it literally), they face-off to see who created the best display that year.
Of course, everyone has their own opinion. My uncle used to work in this fireworks factory and I’ve been to visit a few times. This is what they look like before they light up the skies.
There are two kinds of pyrotechnical displays – the ground fireworks (Catherine Wheels) and the ones lots of people are used to seeing in the sky.
Big crowds gather for the ground fireworks, which are intricate contraptions that are changed every year. Once lit, the fireworks propel the gears and pulleys around to create sparkling designs and pictures. As long as there’s a breeze taking the smoke away from the crowd.
There’s usually a religious procession through the streets of the village. The procession features the area’s priests, those in religious orders, and people from the village.
People (usually men) bid for the privilege of carrying the statue through the procession, and then onto a plinth in the square or inside the church for all to see.
Personally, I think the kids have the best time, especially if they live along the procession route. When we were young we spent months tearing newspapers into strips until we had multiple garbage bags full.
Then, as the procession came past our Nanna’s (grandmother’s) house, we’d all be on the roof, raining paper down like confetti. Afterwards you spend ages running through the street and playing in mountains of paper. It was the closest we got to snow.
It’s not a party without music though, and that’s where the band clubs come in. Each village has one club, and most have two, which creates a bit of good-natured rivalry.
They are part of the procession and take turns playing favourite band marches, which are usually composed by their own local Maestro’s.
Some of these bands were nice enough to allow me to be part of the fun. I can say that it’s tough to concentrate on playing the saxophone while so many things are going on around you and the crowd is enjoying themselves so much.
Food, drink and fun
There are heaps of traditional Maltese food that you should get your hands on during the festa. Start with a few ricotta or pea pastizzi and then work your way over to the Mqaret (date paste wrapped in pastry and fried.
Then there are the nougat stands. Called qubbajt in Maltese, they are often flavoured and coloured, and are sold from traditional stands with beautiful old scales.
You’re going to need something to wash it all down. I suggest the Maltese soft drink (soda) called Kinnie. It’s made from bitter oranges and I crave it every day. Sadly it’s not sold in San Francisco. It is similar to Chinotto though. Otherwise you could try some local beers, like Cisk or Blue Label.
As for the fun part, well that’s pretty easy. Like I said, anything goes – singing, dancing, screaming at the top of your lungs, taunting members of the opposite band club, reveling in a sea of balloons, sitting out on the street enjoying a few drinks with friends.
I challenge you not to have a grin on your face during a Maltese festa. It’s impossible!
I get this question all the time since moving to the United States. In Australia, it seems there are many more of us Maltese descendants to go round. But in San Francisco it’s a bit of a novelty.
See that little speckle below Sicily? It’s so tiny on a map that the capital city star blots it out? That’s Malta. It’s really an archipelago made up of the islands of Malta, Gozo (Ghawdex), Comino (Kemmuna) and Kemmunet. Let’s get a closer look, shall we?
The islands sit in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, making it an important naval base and attractive to a great many world powers over the centuries. Clocking in at 316 square kilometres and housing just under 450,000 people, it can feel like living in each other’s pockets. It’s one of the world’s smallest and most densely populated places.
When to go
The majority of Maltese festi run from May to September. I highly recommend visiting Mosta’s Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady (Festa Santa Marija) during the week of August 15, and Our Lady of Victories (Il-Vitorja) in Mellieha during the week of September 8. But if you’re going to Mellieha wear comfy shoes cause they have hills. Many hills.