Top 5 Christmas Customs in Malta

Date: 14/12/2013

Christmas is celebrated by millions of people around the globe. It is the time of year for family gatherings, prayer, Christmas carols and Christmas trees, and also time for shopping and exchanging gifts. Despite all these things happening, there still exist today a few Christmas traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation, customs that are unique to the islands of Malta and Gozo.

The Sermon of the Child

1. The Sermon of the Child

Christmas still retains a strong religious element for the Maltese. Participation in churches increases around Christmas with a special attendance on Christmas Day. Churches are full for sermon services, with Midnight Mass still retaining its popularity. One of the oldest traditions would be 'The Sermon of the Child' (Il-Priedka tat-Tifel). A boy or girl usually aged between 7 and 10 years old is chosen to replace the celebrating priest in delivering the sermon of the Midnight Mass. This special performance is awaited with great anticipation from all persons present that day. For a few months leading up to Christmas Day, the parents, brothers and sisters would have helped the child practise the speech to perfection, encouraging them to give it their all. It is a highly prized event for every child who is chosen. This lovely tradition is believed to have started in 1883 in the little village of Luqa, where a boy called George Sapiano was the first altar boy to deliver the sermon. After Midnight Mass, it is also a custom for the local parish priest to offer traditional Maltese coffee and date cakes (mqaret) to the members of the community.

Childrens Procession
2. Children's Procession

In almost every town and village, following Midnight Mass, a children's procession is organised by the religious society. What happens during this event is that a statue of baby Jesus is carried shoulder high while children walk behind it through the village streets, carrying lamps and lights along the way and singing old traditional songs such as 'Ninni la Tibkix Iżjed' (sleep and cry no more). This heart-warming custom goes way back to when Saint George Preca set up the first procession in the village of Hamrun in 1921.

The Vetches3. The Vetches (Ġulbiena)

Vetches (ġulbiena) are specifically grown in Malta and Gozo in November and December to be used as a Christmas decoration in houses and churches around the islands. It is traditional to sow wheat, grain or even canary seeds, placed on cotton buds in flat pans for about five weeks before Christmas. These are left in dark corners of the house until the seeds produce white and stringy shoots. The Maltese are quite creative with these vetches. I have seen them used in window sills, in the crib next to the statue of baby Jesus, or placed along the front façade of the crib.

The Nativity Crib

4. The Nativity Crib (Il-Presepju)

Another one of the sweetest and oldest Maltese traditions is the Nativity Crib (Il-Presepju). The first ever recorded crib was found in Rabat and was housed by the Dominican Friars in 1607. The idea of crib building originated in Italy, where St Francis of Assisi re-enacted the Birth of Christ. From here it spread all over Europe and eventually the world, with each country adapting the crib to its own traditions, trades and style of costumes. Although this is not a purely Maltese tradition (because it is also practised in other countries), along the years the Maltese crib has developed its distinctive features. Cribs are found in almost every Maltese home and each family gives it their personal touch.

Depending on the size and structure of the presentation they are usually built with rustic stones known as 'gagazza', very abundant in the Maltese countryside. In recent years, crib enthusiasts have turned to another medium, the paper mache: this makes cribs more solid and lightweight. Wood and paints are also used. Cribs are then decorated with clay statues (pasturi) representing The Holy Family, The Magi, the shepherds with their flocks of sheep, the baker, the bag pipe player, folk singers, angels, fishermen, drum players, and obviously the village simpleton, who is full of wonder and awe (L-Għaġeb tal-Presepju), and whom all the Maltese joke about. The cribs are embellished with all sorts of interesting decorations including the unmistakable growth of vetch (ġulbiena), grown in flat pans some five weeks before Christmas.

Traditional Maltese Christmas Lunch and Dessert5. Traditional Maltese Christmas Lunch and Dessert

Maltese families and restaurants have a wide range of foods at Christmas, and the amounts of food served in one day are enough to feed the family for an entire week! By tradition, the Maltese housewife keeps the fattest capon (ħasi) especially for Christmas Lunch. This is roasted at the local bakery in a casserole with fresh potatoes and vegetables. The traditional dessert that is served at Christmas is the Treacle Ring, (Qagħqa tal-Għasel), and the most traditional 'coupe de grace' is the serving of the hot Chestnut and Chocolate beverage, (l-Imbuljuta tal-Qastan). This is made using cocoa, chestnuts, cloves and citrus zest.

I'm sure many readers have very fond memories of Christmas past which are closely linked with nostalgic thoughts of family, love and security. Together with culture and tradition, families worldwide have their very own Christmas trademarks which undoubtedly go a long way into the making of a child's most magical Christmas. May this magical spirit of Christmas descend upon you and all your families this Christmas. A Blessed Christmas to you all!

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