One of my greatest annual end-of-year fascinations has always been the displays of Christmas Cribs around Malta and Goza. The elaborate, handmade Nativity scenes demonstrate an artistry, dedication, creativity, skill and patience that astounds me. The tradition that started in the 1600s in Malta and Gozo still exists today and is not only a beautiful art form witnessed by tens of thousands, it’s also become competitive!
Malta’s Christmas Cribs
As a boy, I made my own childish versions with glued and painted cardboard and small bell janglers. I sprinklings talcum powder to imitate snow and purchased figurines that I embedded in straw. Needless to say, I have never been a handyman or good in any kind of handcrafts, and have never had a tool box of any kind, although my wife Matilde did buy her own and home repairs are her domain.
The set up and viewing of the fascinating and realistic Christmas Cribs are a great part of the holiday tradition in Malta and Gozo today, and have been many centuries, even despite the decrease in religious volition in current times. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that at this time of the year you’d find a Maltese household to be without one.
You don’t have to go far to find them if visiting Malta and Gozo. The more accomplished and elaborate creations are put on public display in the front rooms of houses with windows overlooking the street. You’ll also see them in garages or front garden niches. Of course, every chapel and church has one, and they are on display in all Government public and private administration offices as well as shop windows and public squares.
Called “presepji” (cribs) in Maltese, they are adorned with “pasturi” (figures) and can be very elaborate with lifelike details and accessories to accompany the scenes. Some actually move. I’ve seen some with running water. Others might have bells jangling and Christmas music playing for onlookers. Live cribs have also become popular.
Malta’s Crib History & Competition
The idea of cribs originated in Italy around 1220 and soon spread throughout Europe and the Christian world, later expanding worldwide. The first recorded crib in Malta was built by the Dominican Friars in their church at Rabat in Malta in 1617, and was based on the Neapolitan and Sicilian styles. Neapolitan-style cribs had already become popular throughout Europe but Franciscan friar Benedetto Papale, who resided in Malta for some years, is attributed to have introduced the custom on the islands.
Modern crib-building and competition in Malta began in the 1950s when the Society of Christian Doctrine, an association of lay faithful founded by St. George Preca whose aim is teaching the Catholic faith, first distributed small Nativity kits to every child, sharing the Christmas story with kids who would assemble and decorate their Nativity scenes. Just before Christmas, Maltese towns would gather for song and prayer, and the children’s cribs would be awarded prizes. Over the years, the concept morphed, skills improved , and local clubs were formed, dedicated to building cribs and the organising competitions.
During World War II the custom subsided but returned and gained great momentum in the years that followed. Crib enthusiasts clubbed together in 1986 and formed The Association of the Friends of the Crib and they have continued to organise crib-making workshops to this day.
Cribs mainly follow two styles: those in the shape of a grotto because of the use of highly-pliable limestone or the traditional large cribs. The materials often used are simple, plentiful and inexpensive and include a thin wooden base, chicken wire and paper-mâché made with flour glue.
Sizes vary from a modest shoe box-sized scene to mechanical set-ups to an entire village square being covered with life-size figures. Nowadays, the most popular are the live Nativity Scenes.
In 2008, the village of Ghajnsielem in Gozo transformed a number of abandoned fields to become a Nativity Village, still largely popular today and visited by thousands of Maltese, Gozitans and tourists between mid-December and the first week of January to see the rural land at Ta’ Passi fields transformed into an expansive Nativity village featuring an inn, a bakery, a carpenter’s workshop, a working farm, live actors and animals. The biggest attraction is the grotto with the Madonna, St. Joseph and the Baby Jesus. Every year it draws an estimated 100,000 visitors and is a must when visiting Malta at Christmas.
Malta Cribs Around the World
Over the years the popularity of Maltese-made cribs grew around Europe and the world with Maltese cribs going on display mainly in Italy (including The Vatican), Spain and Portugal but also in the United Kingdom.
The greatest feat was accomplished when the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. in the United States decided to display the three best Maltese-made cribs in the museum. A Crib Competition was initiated by the Ministry for Culture throughout the Maltese islands and this year was held on 16 November. As I explained, every type of Crib is well beyond my creative and construction capability and patience, and their beauty still astounds me to this day.
Whether you are an atheist or an agnostic, have Christian or other religious beliefs doesn’t matter. The craftsmanship and appreciation of the work supersede all religious and political philosophies.
The Maltese nativity crib has started the process to be inscribed on UNESCO’s ist of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanit, joining the ftira and għana as well as the local festa
BeSeeingYou In: Malta for Christmas
Good To Know: There is no expense to witness the wonderful Maltese cribs, and many Cribs remain on display through 6 January 2024.
WOW! Factor: The Maltese nativity crib has started the process to be inscribed on UNESCO ist of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity!
TIP: Cribs are spread all over the islands in nearly every town, village and church at Christmas. Just start walking!
Author Bio: Albert Fenech
Read more about Christmas in Malta