Sunday, 17 December 2017

Christmas in Malta - part 1

A typical hand-made Maltese nativity or presepio
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 multicolored 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 Santa Claus (called Father Christmas here) 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, and of course in churches, band clubs and other centers.
The first Maltese crib we know of is that found at the Benedictine Nuns in Mdina and bears on its framework the year 1826. 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. However many people display just the baby Jesus sitting on a rock or sleeping. An incredible display of baby Jesuses is found in an all-year round Museum in Birkirkara with hundreds of images, some of which are a few hundred years old. 
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, fishermen, hunters, 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. Many crafty enthusiasts prepare quite an elaborate display of the town of Bethlehem, and are usually on display throughout the month of December .
The tradition of building cribs in churches and homes began in the 13th century by the Franciscan friars. St Francis of Assisi is said to have created the first live nativity with a real baby for Jesus. The tradition of the Christmas tree and Christmas cards (il-kartolini tal-Milied) was imported from Germany in the 19th century.
Nearly in every town and village a procession is held on Christmas Eve 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 altar-server, recites a sermon narrating the birth of Christ. Recently a boy and a girl alternate the sermon, memorized to perfection. In my chapel, last year I had two boys, and this year I have 2 girls alternating with me the sermon.

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