December is on the horizon and Christmas celebrations are ready to unfurl worldwide. But in Malta, it feels as if it’s celebrated with extra vigour thanks in part to the country’s nearly 2,000 years of devotion to Christianity. From Christmas markets to traditional festas and incredible nativity scenes, Malta pulls out all the stops to celebrate the season in the Mediterranean.
Cospicua and the ‘Cottenera’
Christmas celebrations are a highlight around the world, including in the Maltese Islands, but there is another event that has been diligently followed and honoured for many centuries. On 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is an anticipated annual celebration around the Maltese Islands, but particularly in the village of Cospicua on the upper rim of Valletta’s Grand Harbour.
The port location has been highly important since the Phoenicians settled in Malta, and the locality grew into one of the most important in the Maltese Islands, providing employment for thousands of skilled and unskilled employees and being a paramount importance marine area for the Knights of St John and later, the British Empire and right into the mid-1970s. During its peak, the Malta Dockyard, later the Malta Dry Docks, employed 20,000 people.
Cospicua is one of the so-called ‘Three Cities’, a trio of villages across the Grand Harbour from Valletta whose existence predates the capital. They are: Cospicua, also known as Bormla, Senglea, also known as L’Isla, also known as Vittoriosa, also known as Birgu. Collectively, the Three Cities are known as ‘the Cottonera’.
The Three Cities withstood two sieges, each worthy of more reading if you are interested in Malta: The Great Siege of 1565 (against the Ottoman Turks), and the World War II Siege (against the Axis powers).
The Feast Day of Cospicua
The feast day of Cospicua has been the Feast of the Immaculate Conception for centuries, a Holy Holiday in the Roman Catholic calendar celebrated every 8 December with enough pomp and circumstance to turn Scrooge into a fan. Plan on colourful and boisterous street band parades, fireworks, food, and elaborate lights and decoration. The climax of the day is the solemn evening procession of the devout statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
FYI: Cospicua is the birthplace of former Prime Minister Dominic Mintoff, revered by many as the best politician of the Maltese Islands. He was Prime Minister from 1955 to 1958 and from 1971 to 1984. For scores of years, he was also the President of one of the Cospicua band clubs. Band clubs in Malta have a special place in the community and Maltese social culture and are a source of intense pride.
Malta’s Magnificent Cribs
Cribs/ Nativity scenes are one of Malta’s most popular Christmas traditions, and you can find one in almost every home, church, and street corner around the islands during the season.
There are antique statues of Baby Jesus that go back 350 years, and some are on display in a museum in Birkirkara, aka B’Kara. It’s also not uncommon to see handmade signs with the word “Presepju” or “Crib” pointing the way to local artists and artisans of who have dedicated a lot of their time and skill to creating stunning nativity scenes complete with intricate, hand-crafted figurines.
Live Cribs have become increasingly popular, too. These elaborate nativity scenes see actors play out the traditional story of the birth of Jesus complete with life-sized Cribs, real animals, and Biblical-inspired costumes. The most well-known takes place in Gozo, in the village of Ghajnsielem.
Called “Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem”, this life-size Crib scene was constructed on 20,000 square metres of fields and during December, around 150 actors bring to life the nativity story through reenactments.
The islands are packed with a stream of Christmas Markets and events from mid-December through early January, with ample opportunity for family-friendly fun, food, shopping and entertainment. In the capital city of Valletta, Fairyland is a big one and will once more see Pjazza Tritoni transformed into Santa’s City from 8 December through 7 January 2024.
As the name suggests, Fairyland brings whimsy and magic during the month-long event. The popular Rudolph’s Big Wheel invites riders for a twirl to admire views over the city and beyond. There’s also an an ice skating rink—a thrill for Maltese and visitors alike as a unique opportunity for frozen fun in a Mediterranean land.
Food and drink stalls offer the best of Christmas fare and spirit, and naturally many tots of alcohol and wine are poured for grownups. Santa Claus and his elves make an appearance at Fairyland too, toting stockings filled to the brim to gleefully delight children.
Follow the Fairyland festivities on Instagram
Come back next week for more about Christmas in Malta.
Be Seeing You In: Malta
Good to Know: 8 December is a public holiday in Malta
WOW! Factor: The Maltese nativity crib has started the process of applying to be inscribed on UNESCO’s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Tip: Midnight Mass in Malta is a dazzling celebration and churches are decorated in full seasonal regalia with glorious carol singing.