A feast for the eyes
The festa season in Malta is made up of a long series of extended weekends, starting from the beginning of May right through the entire summer and well into September. During this period, there is hardly any weekend when a town or a village is not celebrating the feast of its patron saint or other saints revered in different churches.
2000 years ago it is said that St. Paul was shipwrecked in Malta; and every February, even now, a national festival honours this first Christian missionary, its principal patron saint. During fiestas such as these, the real heroes of the hour at the village level are both the local patron saints and the “grimy soot-stained men who made and fired the fireworks”.
Rival band clubs centre their loyalties around the cult of saints and contend for superior privileges on behalf of their respective patron saints. The bands themselves play well rehearsed brass and wind instruments, much like in the Southern Italian style, with the young and old gathering with the band to march around the town.
These traditions stretch back to the 16th century, so it is no wonder that they are a popular component of Maltese summer nightlife. The village festa itself is a week-long festivity celebrating the parish patron saint, culminating at the end of the week. Make it a point to visit on Saturday and Sunday evening.
Saturday evenings usually play host to gargantuan fireworks displays, both aerial and ground types. Every imaginable firework form is in evidence, and makes a great photographic spectacle, lighting the dark summer night sky briefly with choreography of colour. Malta's fireworks are colourful, artistic and quite loud!
On the last day of the feast, the statue of the patron saint is carried on shoulders to the accompaniment of church bells which resound with celebratory chimes, while aerial fireworks and brass bands whip up afervour as it goes around the village streets in a procession. Colourful confetti are continuously thrown from the church, house balconies and roofs as the procession proceeds beneath. The entire village will be decorated with banners, flags and houses are lit in the traditional colours of the particular village. At the heart of it and towering above the flat roofed homes in the village core, the village church steals the show, with luxurious red damask draping the inside walls and hundreds of coloured lights decorating the outside, like pearls shining in the night.
Banners, papier maché statues raised on wooden columns and festoons decorate the main streets of the locality where the feast is taking place. The villagers then add to this festive mood by decorating their own balconies and rooftops with lit up coloured festoons - blue, red, green - according to the feast they are supporting. Flags are also hoisted on public places and private residences as a sign of participation. It's a marvelous sight, seeing hundreds of flags flying on poles right across the village, Papal flags and village colours animating the skyline and setting the scene below.
A typical Maltese ‘festa' lasts three days or longer. On any one of these evenings, visitors are bound to see hundreds of people in festive mood. Traditional and fast food stands vie with each other to sell their wares to the crowds of merry-makers. Typical products are Maltese type nougat and other sweet delicacies, such as Imqaret; delicious, mouthwatering diamond shaped pastries stuffed with dates and deep fried! Mqaret are best eaten hot, standing next to the vendor's mobile kiosk while the crowds stroll by.
Homes are looking their absolute best, often benefiting from a fresh coat of paint a few weeks before, in preparation for the feast. The interiors of the Maltese family home may be glimpsed through the open doors and windows, unless your curiosity gets rewarded by an invitation from the family to come inside for a closer look... and a drink! This is frequently the case, with the Maltese taking great pride in being hospitable, warm and friendly.
The evenings often end with spectacular ground and aerial fireworks display in an explosion of colour, firecrackers and loud petards. Experience months of hard work by the many village volunteers during all these festivities whilst enjoying typical Maltese delicacies. No visitor to these islands should miss these wonderful, and frequent, celebrations of life, colour and cuisine. This is summer in the Mediterranean as it has been lived by ordinary people for over 500 years.