The Malta Independent on Sunday
Lent and Carnival in Malta (2017)
Dimech takes an in-depth look at the meaning behind Lent and carnival in Malta
The term ‘Carnival’ consists of two words Carne (meat) and Vale (you may). In other words, carnival means, the time period when one can eat meat. It implies a time of eating and a time of fasting. In the Catholic Church and the Christian Church in general, fasting usually takes the dimension of fasting from meat and/or meat derivates. The carnival festivities, preceding lent are a time of revelling and joyous celebration and sometimes excesses.
Carnival is celebrated approximately before the 40 to 50 days of fasting from Ash Wednesday up to Easter Sunday.
Setting the Easter Date
Carnival is celebrated according to when Good Friday falls and this depends on the position of the moon and whether it is full moon or not. The date of Easter Day is usually the first Sunday after the first Full Moon occurring on or after the March equinox.
Easter Sunday celebrates the Christian belief of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. The Easter date is set around the time of the March Equinox.
The March equinox coincides with Easter Sunday and holidays that are related to it. These holidays do not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian calendar, or the Julian calendar, which is still used by many Orthodox Christian churches.
This year carnival has been celebrated between 24 and 28 of February
The Chart (with Maltese equivalent) below helps to put together the various dates tied with Lent for 2017.
The significance of Lent and the origins of Carnival
In the Old Testament we find that there were certain pagan traditions that the Jews learned from other tribes that they came in contact with. For instance the Babylonians and the Egyptians had different idols which they paraded on carts to celebrate festivities tied with goddesses of fertility. Familiar names of such goddesses were Marduk and Isis.
Since our Christian faith has Judeo roots, several of these feasts were taken on by the Western Christian tradition in an attempt to Christianise them. As a matter of fact, the whole concept of carnival and lent is to celebrate the passage from winter (suffering of Christ) to Resurrection Sunday (the time of a new life lib- erated from death and suffering) and a new life in the Resurrected Christ.
In many ways, Lent is about dying: dying to self as you embrace the cross of Christ; dying to the world as you live as a citizen of heaven; dying to material wants and sensual pleasures that you may be raised by God to new heights; dying to fleeting things that you may take hold of eternal life. And all along, it is God who sustains you, gives you strength and directs your path. Lent, then, is a journey into the wondrous and beautiful heart of God.
There seems to be no documented reference for Carnival in the period before 1535 and it appears that Carnival was celebrated the first time under Grand Master Pietro del Ponte who was the second Grand Master of the Order in Malta. This means that carnival was celebrated 5 years after the Knights came to Malta.
Carnival in Malta seems to have been given a huge drive forward when under the Grand Master La Valletta, the use of masks were allowed in carnival festivities. This custom was taken from the crew of a large fleet of Christian ships that sought shelter in Malta due to inclement weather and illness on board as they were en route to Tripoli. The crew consisting of officers and sailors landed in Malta and exhibited their masks to the Maltese as they revelled in the streets of Valletta. Among the crew were some of the aristocratic elite of Europe (Venetians and French) and it was a long-standing tradition that the elite of Europe used masks in their parties and celebration of carnival.
As time passed, carnival was become more and more popular and spectacular event under the Knights and was firmly engrained in Maltese culture and national festivity, reaching a peak under the Portughese Grand Master Pinto (1741-1773).
Under British rule carnival’s popularity decreased. For instance, in 1846 the Carnival riots caused much distress to the local populace as the Governor of the time, Sir Patrick Stuart tried to stop the use of the masks in carnival. This interference was met with rioting and the police had to intervene in order to avoid an escalation. Finally, the revellers were allowed to use masks and things proceeded normally and without further incidents.
A dramatic event that merits mention is the carnival tragedy of 11 February 1823. During carnival children were treated to a ration of bread by the church of Ta’ Ġieżu. These were times of extreme poverty and a piece of bread was seen as a blessing for starving children in those days. The sheer number of boys who flocked for bread made it impossible for all to enter the convent from the side street and as the boys were going up the stairs the door was closed by the sexton in an attempt to prevent more boys coming in and in the stampede that followed, the boys were trapped inside the convent and there was no escape as they were who were held in by the closed doors. Over 100 boys perished, many of them choking to death as their bodies pressed upon each other.
An interesting tradition that was added to carnival was the Kukkanja. It was introduced in 1721 under Grand Master Zondadari. Eventually this tradition lost its popularity as it was not much encouraged by the British. Beams were set up in front of the Palace Square in Valletta and hung to these beams were all sorts of live animals and other foods such as smoked ham, cheese, baskets with fresh eggs and all sorts of edibles. It was a game of who arrives first and grabs as much food as possible. On top of this heap of foods was a large globus, covered with velvet, on which the emblem flag of the Grand Master was erected. The first person to grab this flat would take it to the Grand Master and the carnival would be officially inaugurated. The globus would be burst open and a number of doves would fly out.
One can imagine the sort of rough, rowdy and rude atmosphere that would ensue with shouting and screams to take as much food home as possible. The live animals were helpless as they were torn off the Kukkanja.
The Qarcilla was another piece of carnival drama representing a mock marriage with folkloristic and humorists overtones as the contract of marriage was read out with all sorts of funny explicatives.
King Carnival ruled supreme and this usually was the float that was the main focus of attention. Other traditions associated with carnival in Malta were the political floats with all sorts of satires that poked fun at political figures both local and foreign. Many carnival floats were also a means of promoting several products such as cigarettes and foods and therefore the marketing element was exploited to its maximum.
Carnival brings about also sweets associated with this celebration such as the Perlini and the Prinjolata. This is traditional Maltese dessert prepared especially for Carnival. The name Prinjolata comes from the word ‘prinjol’ which means pine nuts in Maltese. The prinjolata is a delicious carnival cake that is instantly recognizable from its unusual shape. The Perlini are sugar coated almonds in all variations of pastel colours. During old carnival days, perlini used to be thrown gracefully from atop the carnival floats to the pleasure of all, especially kids.
Today the carnival spirit still reigns supreme with children being dressed up and taken to all sorts of carnival parties donning the most colourful costumes. Many towns and villages organise their own little carnivals with dancing and singing and last but not least Gozo is worldrenowned for its Nadur carnival that specialises in its own way with the macabre and also humoristic floats and dresses.