If you want to mingle with the locals in Malta, there is nowhere better than at the Maltese village festa (or feast).
Here you’ll find an up-to-date calendar of this year’s festi (plural) and all you need to know about this staple of Maltese culture.
The Maltese love their patron saints and the village festa, being primarily a religious celebration, is held in their honour every year. Each village celebrates a different patron saint or two depending on the number of churches in the locality. Each church is dedicated to a different saint. For this reason, some villages celebrate more than one feast per year.
The village band clubs, at times in collaboration with the members of the parish, are tasked with the organisation of the festa.
The competition between the band clubs can be quite fierce when it comes to the organisation of decorations and the fireworks shows, even if there is only one celebration in the village.
It gets even tougher when the locality celebrates two different patron saints, each honoured by an individual band club.
The festi are held over the summer months. This is a time of great merrymaking for the local community. In fact, there are a lot of traditions and customs associated with the festa.
I’ll give you a fair warning if you’re thinking of witnessing one: If you’re used to a mellow lifestyle, attending the festa can be a bit of a culture shock as it can get really noisy and loud.
The actual schedule of events around Maltese village feasts tends to be different between different parishes and localities.
Although I’ll take you through a rough outline, it’s not always easy to find out the exact program for a festa you’d like to attend.
Your best bet is to keep an eye on the local parish’s Facebook page (Yes, you read that correctly) around two weeks before the day of the festa.
Festa celebrations sometimes even begin or start two weeks prior to the day of the celebration with Church activities. These usually involve the Christening of babies and a celebratory children’s mass.
The day of the festa is celebrated all day starting with a march in the morning. Festa aficionados often get so drunk that they can barely make it home in the afternoon to come out and celebrate the patron saint in the evening.
On the evening of the day of the festa, the statue of the patron saint is carried out of the Church and back inside. It is met with great cheers and applause from the crowd on its way back.
Confetti, balloons and streamers are launched from the rooftops and balconies. Fireworks light up the sky and an inscription with the name of the patron saint is lit across the steeple of the Church.
Lots of colours, lots of sound and lots of locals for starters.
Religious relics and damask tapestry adorn the inside of the Church during the festa. The statue of the patron saint is placed at the centre.
The square is usually full of festoons and pavilions usually in the shape of enormous Spanish fans with woven images of the celebratory patron saint.
These adornments usually take a whole year’s work to prepare, usually done by men and women (members of the local band clubs), who take it upon themselves to set up the pyrotechnics and other embellishments related to the festa.
There are also the steeplejacks, who risk their lives decorating the dome of the Church with heavy candy light.
On the side of the Church, you can usually find the ground pyrotechnic work. The men in charge of the fireworks, petards, musketterija or firing of the muskets and the Catherine wheels need to be well-prepared and organised. Showing off between the band clubs when it comes to who has been the most creative, colourful and well-organised is not taken lightly. The occasional fight between competing band clubs is also a common occurrence.
Every household in the locality contributes to the funding involved in the fireworks. At times local businessmen and politicians also step in to make their own donations, often for some good old fashioned PR among the locals, sometimes also to garner more favours or win potential electoral votes.
Once the colours of all the decorations mix with those of the petards and the Catherine wheels (pyrotechnic displays mounted on poles in the streets), nothing becomes more spectacular in Malta than the village festa.
If you happen to be flying aboard a plane over Malta on a summer night, there’s a good chance you’ll catch a glimpse of the festivities.
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When are the Maltese festi on this year? Here’s an overview of all village feasts by date, showing you which locality celebrates their festa and in honour of which saint.
You’ll find that in some localities, like Valletta and Rabat, multiple parishes each have their celebration at different times of the year.
Whilst the petards and the Catherine wheel are beautiful to watch, the explosive sounds they emit can be pretty insufferable. Should you suffer from tinnitus or happen to be sensitive to loud noise, you would do better to watch the festa from afar.
If you play your cards right and befriend a local who will be nice enough to let you watch it from the rooftop of his or her house. Bars and restaurants around might offer access to rooftops and/or balconies as well to its customers.
The marching band during the festa can also be pretty noisy. There is no missing it as usually loudspeakers are placed in the streets surrounding the square. This means that it can be heard from anywhere in the locality.
Whilst the Maltese are pretty loud by nature, the noise of the marching band and the petards, combined with an extra drink or two, make them even louder. In the Marċ il-Kbir (big band march) many passionate festa lovers join the marching band to belt out their favourite festa marches or tunes.
It all comes together when they stand outside the rival band club – a long-standing ‘warring’ custom. They then sing odes to their patron saint and against the rival patron saint. This is a common practice in localities with two patron saints as a way to impassion and animate the crowd.
In the week of the festa, diets are usually put on hold as both men and women enjoy their wine and beer. Food stalls line the streets selling.
Sweets are sold at food stalls around the centre, with nougat being the most traditional sweet of the festa. There is also the local imqaret (deep-fried pastry with dates filling). Increasingly, traditional sweets are making way for fast food as well, so expect to find people tucking into hamburgers with oily chips, hot dogs, deep-fried onion rings, and chicken nuggets.
Deep-fried doughnuts are also quite popular. At the festa, they are usually in a small looped-shaped size. Some people even indulge in six or eight of these at the same time. Granita (semi-frozen sugary dessert, originally Sicilian) and ice-creams are also sold at these kiosks.
Toy stalls are also part of the festa bonanza, to keep the kids entertained. Glowsticks, water guns, cheap toys, etc.
A village feast is a real outing and a good excuse to dress up and spend time with family. Or with friends and away from family, for young teenagers.
The legal drinking age in Malta is 17. Yet, the festa is a good excuse for any local teen below that age to get a friend or a relative to buy him a beer or two.
According to Maltese historian PP Castagna, the village festa goes back to the times of the Order of the Knights of St John. Grandmaster De Rohan loved feasts and merry-making. He encouraged the Maltese population to celebrate church activities even outside the church. When it came to the music of the festa, string instruments were first introduced. Then the brass band came along, which has become institutional in the village festa.
According to social historian, Jeremy Boissevain, this obsession with the festa sees the coming together of popular and political culture. Clientelism, patronage and political divide have always dominated the Maltese islands. These elements have proved resilient over time.
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