With nearly 60 festas in Malta on the annual calendar (mostly during the summer months and nearly 20 festa events on the smaller sister island of Gozo, the Maltese festa, a religious celebration organized by the local parish, is a typical scene of the hot summer months on the island, and very much an iconic part of culture in Malta.
The Maltese festa, or village feast, pretty much follows a long-established pattern, one that has been passed on from generation to generation, from century to century. For the purposes of this article, we shall follow, on and off, in the footsteps of the faithful parishioners of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Balluta (in Sliema), on the east coast.
Sliema is the most prosperous district of Malta and one of the most sought-after holiday area, a fun place to be based, both as a resident and as a tourist. It enjoys a wide variety of street café life and excellent restaurants to suit different tastes and pockets. Oh, and, with the young generation in mind, it offers an interesting and vibrant nightlife with many modern clubs just up the road in nearby Paceville.
The feast of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is celebrated on the last weekend of July. The warm evening air along the Balluta promenade smells strongly of gunpowder. The fireworks display is in full swing as hundreds of spectators – and promenaders taking in the night air along the undulating and picturesque Tower Road, Sliema’s main thoroughfare – turn their gaze towards the colourful spectacle taking place above them on a clear July night.
Bands, processions, the ringing of church bells, firework displays and, in some instances, street parties are the focal point of these happy, religious celebrations. There is a certain amount of pride attached to them as well; rivalry between neighbouring villages is not exactly unknown, with one parish vying hard to outdo another parish in the lavishness of the celebrations.
Street-side stalls along the approaches of the church sell a motley assortment of cold, refreshing drinks, ice cream and food, including a sweet traditionally associated with the Maltese festa: the qubbajt. It is nougat, with sugar – lots of it, be warned – as its core ingredient, and almonds. They are available in very hard or soft versions.
Outside, the church gets a light-fantastic treatment: its façade is covered in hundreds of light bulbs, usually white, looking not unlike the famous Harrods store in London. The lights theme – and in various colours – is also in evidence along the main streets of the celebrating parish church, plus miles of bunting and other decorations, including flags of various shapes and sizes.
Of course, the climax of any Maltese festa is the procession and the carrying of the heavy life-size statue of the patron saint by an eight-man team. It is an exhausting exercise and upholds a tradition that goes back generations.
In Balluta the pretty and highly realistic statue of the Lady of Mount Carmel will begin its annual two-mile processional journey around the streets, with hundreds of faithful parishioners following behind. The cortege will wind its way, slowly and reverently, through the main streets. The men carrying the heavy statue stop for much-deserved mini breaks at regular intervals; the heat of the evening does not help, either. Three hours or so later, the cacophony of the church bells, pealing with some urgency, along with another flurry of fireworks, and the excited clapping by hundreds of parishioners and onlookers denote the imminent arrival of the ‘Lady’ back to her church.
As the crowd disperses, the final barrage of fireworks rants the air. The smell of gunpowder lingers on as another feast in Malta draws to an end. Until the next festa, next weekend in a village near you.