Christmas is very important for the people of Malta and their sister Island of Gozo. Most people in Malta are Catholics and attend a Midnight Mass service. Usually the churches are full of people.
In Maltese, Happy / Merry Christmas is ‘Il-Milied it-Tajjeb’.
The churches are decorated with lights and mangers, “Presepju”, built by church goers. The cribs are decorated with statuettes, called ‘pasturi’ (representing figures such as shepherds and angels). Today some of the cribs are mechanical and the figures in them move! The figure of the child Jesus is placed on the high altar at midnight on Christmas night. In Epiphany it is traditional to put the three figures of the Magi (Wise Men) in the cradle. There is a group in Malta called “Friends of the Cradle” that helps keep the tradition of the Maltese crib alive.
The cribs were introduced for the first time in Malta from Italy by rich nobles. They were not popular at first and most were burned. It is believed that the first true Maltese cradle was made in Malta in 1617 and exhibited at the Domenican Friars Church in Rabat. In the monastery of San Pedro in Mdina, there is a cradle dating from 1670. It is treasured and attended by the Benedictine nuns who live in the monastery.
Almost at the same time, another Maltese man made a crib with moving parts powered by water! As cribs became more popular, they also became more ‘maltese’ with people replacing Italian-looking buildings and exchanging people with locals. (The flour windmills were and still are popular buildings to include in a crib scene). The first imported Italian pasturi were very expensive and most people could not afford them. So people started making their own clay pastures and rough plaster. Some of these figures still exist today. (Modern pasturi are now often plastic).
From early to mid-twentieth century, cribs were considered outdated and were no longer very popular. To stop the decline of Christmas, in 1907, a priest named George Preca founded a charity and society for children called “MUSEUM”. In 1921, the tradition of having a Christmas procession began with a life-size figure of the Child Jesus in front of the procession.
At sunset on Christmas Eve in 1921, Fra Diegu street in the city of Hamrun was full of children and adults ready to participate in the first procession. In those days, street lighting was very poor in Malta and many people carried lanterns to help them see their way during the procession and to shed light on the statue of the Child Jesus, carried to the shoulders by four children. They include different types of lamps, gas bicycle headlights, oil lamps used in farmers’ cars, colored paper lanterns, Venetian lights, palm leaves and olive branches. The idea became very popular among people of all ages and so the very traditional traditional Maltese began. These processions are still popular today and are part of the Christmas Eve celebrations.
In 1986, the ‘Friends of the Crib’ society was formed and now have more than 500 members. Each year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the Friends organize an exhibition of approximately 100 cradles of all shapes and sizes.
Maltese houses are often also decorated with cribs with “pasturi” (which are small plastic or clay figures representing figures such as shepherds and angels). Large figures of the baby Jesus are sometimes placed behind the windows or on balconies and lit at night. The houses are also decorated with Christmas garlands, candles and all kinds of other decorations. Each home also has a Christmas tree decorated with light bulbs, tinsel and Christmas decorations.
It is traditional to plant wheat, grain and Canary seed, ‘gulbiena’, on cotton sticks in flat pans five weeks before Christmas. These are left in the dark corners of the house until the seeds produce white shoots similar to grass. The pans with the grown buds are used to decorate the crib or the statue of the Child Jesus.
A Maltese Christmas tradition is the “Priedka tat-Tifel” which means “the preaching of the child”. A boy or a girl, usually 7 to 10 years old, preaches the sermon at Midnight Mass instead of the priest! The children learn the sermon by heart and begin to learn it four or five weeks before they preach on Christmas Eve. The parents are also very excited and nervous about the performance, as they would have helped the children learn the sermon. The boy or girl tells the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and is encouraged to give his sermon a personal gift that touches the hearts of those attending the church.
George Sapiano delivered the first known sermon on Christmas Eve by an altar boy in 1883, in the parish church of Luqa. It has also become common for local churches to organize a mini-contest with children disguised as shepherds, Joseph and Mary with a doll (representing Jesus) representing the story of the Nativity. This recreation begins at 11 pm and is followed by High Mass at midnight.
A popular Maltese carol is ‘ninni la tibkix izjed’. It means ‘do not sleep anymore’ and it was written by the Jesuit priest, the father. Andrew Schembri (1774-1862) of Luqa for Maltese immigrants in Tunisia.
There is a village in Malta called ‘Siggiewi’ dedicated to Saint Nicholas, also known as San Niklaw, from Bari in Italy and his feast is celebrated on the last Sunday of June.
The children of Malta receive their gifts from Santa Claus on Christmas night. Sometimes, Santa arrives at the doors early on Christmas night delivering gifts!
Schools in Malta often hold a Christmas concert. The majority of children participate. It consists of Christmas carols, Christmas-themed games, mimes and poetry recitals, etc. Both children and teachers enjoy it. Christmas parties are also held in each class. Sometimes children bring food that their parents prepare at home and is shared with everyone in their class. The gifts are exchanged and, sometimes, the money given to the charity is collected.
Every year there is a concert and a Christmas party at the Residential House for the disabled in Siggiewi. Residents participate in the Christmas works and sing Christmas carols with the help of the people who work in the Home, including the nuns. The house is decorated and the atmosphere is great. The chapel is decorated with a beautiful crib with Baby Jesus. On Christmas Eve, a procession takes place with the Child Jesus and then the Midnight Mass. The relatives of the residents also participate in the Christmas celebrations. Special food is prepared and the atmosphere is very happy!
Volunteer organizations also organize Carol Singing nights in nursing homes and hospitals, helping to encourage the elderly and the sick with the spirit of Christmas.
Under the sponsorship of the President of Malta, the Community Chest Fund installs a tent in the Plaza de la Libertad in the city of Valletta, where volunteers help raise cash donations. Donations are distributed to charities such as orphanages and other charities, which often rely on donations to continue their work in the community.
The Maltese have a great variety of food at Christmas. Traditionally, the Maltese housewife kept the capon / rooster fatter, “hasi”, especially for Christmas lunch, which was roasted in the local bakery in a casserole full of potatoes and vegetables. The traditional desert served at Christmas was the Treacle Ring, ‘Qaghqa tal-Ghasel’, and finally, a hot soup of chestnuts and cocoa, ‘Imbuljuta tal-Qastan’, which was and serves as a cozy drink during the night. Cold days of December in Malta.
Today, the traditional Maltese menu has paved the way for Christmas turkeys, Christmas cakes, Christmas puddings and mince pies, all inherited during 164 years of British rule (1800 – 1964) in Malta. Italian Panetone has also become a Christmas favorite.