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MALTA FESTAS — PATRON SAINT FEAST DAYS

Story and photos by

If your cruise ship stops in Valletta, or if you visit Malta on a Mediterranean vacation, you may be surprised, as we were. After a memorable performance at Valletta's beautiful Manoel Theatre, we stepped into the street. Exploding fireworks, ringing church bells and brass band music ricocheted off limestone walls around us.

Band parades during Valletta festa.
Band parades during Valletta festa.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Following a crowd of exuberant local people, along a street adorned with red banners, we entered St. Augustine's Church. The building glowed like a beacon with hundreds of lights. Red damask draped its marble walls and pillars. Gold embroidered cloths and glimmering silver statues embellished the altars.

All eyes were cast, not on the treasures displayed on the altars, but on of a statue St. Augustine. Flowers and three-meter-high candles surrounded the life-size figure of one of Valletta's three patron saints.

A mass had just finished, and the altar boys and priests joined the crowds outside. Drawn like children to the music of a Pied Piper, people followed the musicians and flag-bearers, parading through the streets.

Festa dates

It was a Maltese festa, one of dozens that take place year-round on patron saint feast days. In Malta and the nearby island of Gozo, most village festas (festi in Maltese), are on weekends between May and October. These traditional religious and social celebrations date back to the 1500s.

St. Augustine Festa decorations cover church altar.
St. Augustine Festa decorations cover church altar.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

It shouldn't be a surprise that festas are so popular in a country where 98 per cent of the population is Catholic. The Maltese Islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino) have a total of 420 cathedrals, churches and chapels—more per capita than in any other country in the world.

As we followed the band, people watched from balconies decorated with lights, banners and framed paintings of the saint. Reaching into enormous bags, they pulled out armfuls of confetti to scatter over the procession.

Confetti falls on parading band on Valletta street.
Confetti falls on parading band on Valletta street.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Confetti and Catherine wheels

It wasn't delicate pastel wedding confetti, but rather, hand-cut strips of paper, like spaghetti-length ribbons. It covered our heads, draped the trumpets and drums and quickly accumulated in the narrow streets. In places, we waded knee-deep through drifts of white clippings.

Children were ecstatic, throwing gobs of paper at each other in the closest substitute this Mediterranean island will ever have to a snowball fight.

As the confetti fell, smoke from the pyrotechnics rose through the streets. We passed the church and saw a robed clergyman setting off cracker bombs on the roof. The church bells rang incessantly, competing with the din.

By 10 pm, we reached a small park, festooned with Catherine wheels, spinning pinwheel fireworks on tall poles. As the crowds pushed closer for a better view, we moved back to a safer distance, only to bump into Laura Mifsud-Bonnici. A friendly and capable tour guide, Laura had shown us around the island, earlier in the day.

"This is the second day of the festa," she explained, as we watched Roman candles fill the sky with chrysanthemums. "Yesterday, there were prayers, masses, hymns and a children's parade. Tomorrow, the parishioners will carry the statue of St. Augustine on a palanquin through the streets."

Fireworks displays

The climax of the festival was a deafening arsenal of fireworks just as the statue re-entered the church. In friendly inter-village rivalry, the success of a festa is usually determined by the quality, quantity and decibel-level of the fireworks displays.

"Often they'll carry the statue into the church and then, as the crowds cheer and applaud, bring the statue out again for a couple standing ovations," said Laura.

Statue of Virgin Mary
Statue of Virgin Mary
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Because the patron saint's festa is the most important event in each town's annual calendar, preparations begin long in advance. Committees raise money to buy fireworks and assign volunteers to hang street and church decorations.

"Before the festa, people clean and paint their homes, string lights around the doors and windows, and stud their roofs with lanterns made from tin cans," remarked Laura." We buy new clothing for the children and stock up on food for visiting relatives and friends."

Festival food

Maltese snacks are also part of the festa. Stalls sprout up selling candy floss and nougat, which is weighed on old-fashioned hand-scales. You'll find creamy white nougat, studded with nuts and brown caramel nougat dotted with sesame seeds.

Each festa has its own peculiarities. In Birzebbuga, a seaside village, the statue of St. Peter arrives by boat. In St. Julian's, a greased pole contest entertains spectators. The mast-size slippery pole extends horizontally over the water from a barge. Competitors take turns sliding to the end to retrieve a flag, with predictable, hilarious results.

"The festa of St. Augustine is only a small one," explained Laura. "The festa of Santa Marija, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on August 15th, is much bigger because it's celebrated in seven villages, each with its own bands and fireworks. If there are 50 streets in each town, the statue must be carried along each street at least once," she said.

Aerial view of Valletta and harbor
Aerial view of Valletta and harbor
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Valletta boat regatta

The Assumption festival is a public holiday. So is September 8th, the festa of Our Lady of Victories. Celebrations include a colorful regatta of traditional boats in Valletta's Grand Harbor.

Because the majority of patron saint festi take place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, many of the villagers get together for a casual day-after-the-festa party. Decorating cars and buses with flags, garlands and flowers, they pack picnic lunches and head for the beach.

For the fun-loving Maltese, even a three-day festa is not long enough.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Malta Tourism: www.visitmalta.com

More things to see and do in Malta:

Neolithic Temples in Malta

Touring Mdina and Rabat Malta

Film Locations in Malta