Malta is known as a religious country, with churches practically around every corner and feasts all year round. But the reason for this reputation is most evident during Holy Week, with activities and exhibitions all over the Maltese islands, including the Good Friday processions.
The most popular of these activities are certainly the Good Friday processions, during which streets are transformed into open-air theatres that pay tribute to the Roman Catholic beliefs of suffering, death and resurrection.
Every year on Good Friday, Christians around the world commemorate the death of Jesus Christ. His resurrection three days later is the Church’s greatest feast and, for believers, the defining moment of their faith. For the Maltese, no other event captures the imagination quite as vividly as the annual Good Friday procession.
Nothing can prepare the visitor for the sheer volume of images and rituals crammed into these few spring days. On the evening of Holy Thursday, pilgrims flock between towns and villages, making the traditional Seven Churches Visitation; enthusiasts exhibit Last Supper salt and rice displays and sets of miniature statues, while confectioners make special ‘fasting’ sweets like kwareżimal, a delicious almond and honey biscuit.
The biggest attractions, however, remain the Good Friday processions which see the participation of many towns and villages.
Various villages in Malta and Gozo organise Good Friday processions, some more popular than others. The bolded villages organise the more popularly visited processions and most start at 17:30h on Good Friday.
You can find your way to the town centre of a parish/village of your choice to get to the church.
A good alternative for visitors is to opt for a guided tour.
The one guided tour that’s currently offered is this one: The Good Friday Procession: Afternoon Tour in Żejtun. A reputable local tour operator organises it, and both transportation and seating are included so you can take in the experience in comfort.
The same operator also provides an Easter Sunday tour, through which you can witness Easter celebrations and a morning procession at the Żejtun parish church and sample traditional Easter sweets.
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Visiting a Good Friday procession in Malta is an experience to remember. Hundreds of actors dressed as Roman soldiers, Jewish priests, and important Biblical figures stroll along to the monotonous beat of funeral marches played by brass bands, following beautifully carved statues, some hundreds of years old, depicting the passion and death of Jesus Christ.
In some towns, like Rabat, Żebbuġ and Mosta, you will often encounter hooded penitents wearing white cloaks carrying crosses or dragging chains on their feet.
The actors narrating the biblical storyline are passionate residents who collectively and voluntarily take part in this street drama, often spending a fortune on expensive replicas of uniforms and period costumes.
And since the Maltese like traditional food, you should not miss grabbing a few sfineġ (fried bread dough filled with anchovy), karamelli tal-ħarrub (carob sweets), hot cross buns or qagħaq tal-appostli (bread rings with almonds) while watching the procession going by.
Good Friday processions in Malta date back to the 16th century when the Maltese began to copy Spanish and Sicilian traditions.
The first-ever procession was held in Rabat by the Franciscan friary, although it had a different format than the ones experienced today. Rabat also boasts the oldest Good Friday statues in Malta.
In some processions, such as the one in Rabat, Mosta and Żebbuġ, chained and masked penitents take part. This tradition takes us back to eighteenth-century Birgu, where slaves and forzati (persons condemned for various reasons to wear chains) took part in the procession.
The circles of dilettanti (enthusiasts) that are the lifeblood of today’s rituals do not just accept what is traditional. They circulate from village to village, comparing notes on ideas and techniques.
It is not unknown for them to take their research to other countries, especially Italy and Spain.
Good Friday processions in Malta are a cultural and religious event to experience for yourself. Get there early to ensure you get a good view of the proceedings, though!
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