As I sit in the warm sunshine surrounded by the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea, I shudder thinking of the extreme cold in northern European countries during February. I imagine, for those that live there, February is a month for staying indoors by a blazing wood fire. But that’s not the case in Malta and Gozo. Here, there’s a hint of spring already in the air, and February is the month to get out and enjoy a plethora of spectacles and events that are both entertaining and religiously solemn.
Most notably, I am speaking of Carnival, Il-Karnival Ta’ Malta in Maltese, Malta’s oldest public festival, which will take place from 9 — 13 February 2024.
I treasure two pictures given to me by my late mother, Pauline. They each show her as a young girl, more than 90 years ago, donning carnival costumes, an almost obligatory act for children preparing for the celebrations. One picture shows her in the arms of my dear grandmother, Giovanna. Her aunt, and my mum’s two brothers and sister are also seen in the picture. The other is my mum standing alone with her two brothers.
While in the 2,000 year-old Christian faith, the sober month of February has always been dedicated to the lengthy 40 days of Lent, a time to mourn, reflect, ponder and pray, and withdraw from bodily pleasures, it has also been marked by the celebration, costumes, family and conviviality, a practice introduced to Malta by the Knights of St John.
Carnivals have always been a time for people to cast off daily regulations and show their true selves via dress, behaviour and sometimes sexual preferences.
More importantly, it gave a voice to the people to express their condemnation and criticism of those who judge them.This was reflected by mountings of large mobile-wheeled Carnival floats, originally pulled by horses and donkeys, or by people. They displayed large and colourful figures or effigies of public figures that had caused the chagrin of the community. Parades also included joyous dancing, costumes and music.
One particular float that has been emblazoned in my memory over the years was from the early 1950s. Advertising the drinking of a brand of beer, it had two men on an animated float, obviously sloshed, slipping and sliding around trying to insert an envelope into a street letter box. They missed the slot each time. Such a float would be banned today.
Carnival has been a prominent celebration in the Maltese Islands since the rule of Grand Master Piero de Ponte in 1535. Originally held over the three days before the onset of Lent, Carnivals, due to their increased popularity, have become five-day extravaganzas speckled with floats, fancy dress and dancing and competitions for the best of each. The heart of the Carnival action in Malta takes place in Valletta, though various towns and villages in Malta and Gozo hold Carnival festivities too
The culmination of Carnival takes place on Shrove Tuesday (this year 13 February) with a massive closing parade along Valletta’s Republic Street. Like they say in Maltese: “Viva Viva ll-Karnival!”
Malta’s Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck
The logistics of the Christian calendar don’t pay much attention to letting the good time roll, and Carnival dates clash head-on with one of the foremost Christian manifestations – the Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck—a National Public Holiday and religious feast in Malta held every 10th of February for the country’s patron saint who is believed to have been shipwreck on Malta around 60AD.
As recorded in the New Testament of The Bible, St Paul of Tarsus was under arrest and being deported to stand trial in Rome where the Christian church had been established. En route, a tremendous storm cropped up and forced the ship and its 300 passengers to take refuge. In St Paul’s words, they had reached a “land of barbarians” because the inhabitants had a Semitic tongue and did not speak Latin. This place has been interpreted to be Malta.
Immediately after struggling out of the sea, St Paul was bitten by a poisonous and deadly viper. The island inhabitants took this as a sign from their Gods that although the man had survived the shipwreck, he did not deserve to remain alive. However, he did – a miracle–and declared that from that moment onward there would be no more poisonous snakes on the island.
This miracle of survival is believed to have taken place on a minute rock island in the northeast of Malta and thenceforth known as St Paul’s Island. The sea inlet later became known as St Paul’s Bay and the small village that sprang up also became known as St Paul’s Bay. St Paul spent three months on the island before continuing to Rome. In today’s appraisal, according to currents and the route the ship was travelling, it is more likely the shipwreck took place in the southern part of Malta, while there is also a dispute as to whether the shipwreck took place in Malta at all.
Malta’s first cathedral in the old capital of Mdina became St Paul’s Cathedral and the Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck in Valletta is one replete with history and wonderful Baroque architectural adornments.
A grand festival to commemorate this event is held in Valletta and a massive statue of the apostle is paraded through the streets of Valletta amid lavish red and gold banners, marching band music, and other celebrations.
What to Expect at Il-Karnival Malta
Due to the start of Lent (Ash Wednesday on 14th February) and the Carnival, the official celebration by the Valletta Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck will take place on 24th February. The church will be lavishly decorated indoors with drapes and gold and silver ornaments and the statue itself of St Paul while the exterior will be resplendent with a display of coloured lights.
Popular band marches will thread through the streets headed by one of Malta’s oldest and most prominent band clubs, La Valette Band. Visitors will also find merchants, exhibitions and plenty of food and drink. The closing celebration is attended by many thousands of devotees, and is a solemn but colourful affair with band music and confetti pouring down from roofs and balconies.
Personally, Carnival was never my thing and I always refused to wear any hats or costumes. My dear mum, however, simply loved Carnival and Carnival dances, and would go to Valletta every day to watch it all. Sometimes I was unwillingly dragged into it and relaxed myself by studying the floats.
As for Lent, it came as a relief to my parents who used the period to tame their two noisy and arguing children (my brother and me) by telling us it was a sin to raise our voices, bicker, eat sweets, and request toys, and we went early to bed.
One thing is certain, whether you are in costume for Carnival in Malta or just a spectate, the scenes will stay with you for a lifetime, as the have for me.
BeSeeingYou In: Malta
Good To Know: Carnival events are free and available to the public and will be held from 9 — 13 February 2024.
WOW! Factor: Old and historic traditions have remained part of modern Malta Carnival celebrations
Tip: Valletta might be ground zero for Malta’s Carnival fun, but the Nadur Carnival in Gozo is also spectacular
Author bio: Albert Fenech
Read more about Malta at BeSeeingYou