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6 Aspects of Malta’s Carnival

This time of year - at least in pre-COVID-19 times - Valletta usually comes to life with people in fancy dress costumes, ornate floats made from papier-mâché, loud music, and an explosion of bright colours, as Malta celebrates its annual carnival.

As in most countries, this popular festival is held just before the start of Lent: a sombre 40-day period of penitence in preparation for Good Friday and Easter, which in the past included obligatory fasting and abstinence - particularly from meat and other animal products. Indeed, it is believed that the name Carnival originated from the Italian phrase 'carne vale', or ‘meat is allowed’, as carnival was seen as the last opportunity to eat and make merry before Lent. This is why carnival is associated with all sorts of revelries and excesses, as it becomes acceptable to behave in a way that would be unacceptable at any other time of the year.

But how much do you know about Malta’s carnival?

1. The History of Malta’s Carnival

Existing archives prove that some sort of carnival was already being celebrated in Malta since at least the 15th century. Although these documents provide very little information about the celebrations involved, they do give some interesting insights: the local administration - the Mdina Università - strictly regulated the price of meat during this period, to avoid abuses by sellers, at a time when clearly the demand increased drastically. And in the Santo Spirito hospital in Rabat, the patients were provided with much better food during carnival than was the case on other days: instead of the usual fare - bread, oil and beans - patients were fed veal, cheese, pasta and wine, to reflect the special nature of the festivities.

Nonetheless, the modern form of carnival started to take shape with the arrival of the Knights of St. John, who greatly strengthened already existing traditions. In 1535, as part of the carnival celebrations, the Knights held a jousting tournament in Birgu, which might have inspired the locals to enact their own carnival shenanigans. From then onwards, carnival would be celebrated by all sectors of society: the nobility would put on their finest clothes and attend masked balls, while the common folk took to the streets dressed up in home-made costumes and masks. Festivities would start on the Saturday prior to Ash Wednesday, with the reading of a bandu by the Grand Master, and the merriment and wild revelry would last until midnight of the following Tuesday.

Already in the 16th century, the ships of the Order would be specially decorated for carnival, which could be where the tradition of the carnival floats originated from. But it was during the 18th century that the idea of the défilé seems to have taken root: this would be led by the Grand Master's carriage, flanked by cavalry marching to the beating of drums, and followed by other decorated carriages.

Unfortunately, carnival went into a decline during the 19th century, when the British governed Malta, as it was not part of British culture, but somehow, it still managed to survive. Following the granting of the 1921 constitution, carnival was strengthened once more, especially through the setting up of a special committee tasked with its organisation, thus paving the way for the carnival we know today, with beautifully crafted costumes, dance competitions, and colourful floats led by ‘King Carnival’.

An interesting development during the 1920s and 30s was that carnival floats started to take on increasingly satirical themes, poking fun at political figures and unpopular government decisions. This led to a law being passed in 1936, banning political satire from carnival - something that was only changed in 2013. After a brief pause during World War Two, carnival once more started being organised on a national scale following the end of the conflict. The hub of the organised activities was located in St. George’s Square, right in the heart of the city, until 1974, but was later moved for many years to Freedom Square. The building of the new parliament led to yet more moves until in 2014 it finally returned back to its original location. Festivities, however, are enjoyed throughout the capital, in nearby Floriana, and in various towns and villages, most notably in Nadur, Gozo.

2. Carnival Food

Food and drink have always been important components of carnival celebrations since the whole idea was to enjoy life as much as possible before the austerity of Lent kicked in. In fact, carnival traditions would not be complete without a number of sweets traditionally associated with this period.

Of course, the most well-known is undoubtedly the 'prinjolata'. This mixture of sponge cake, candied fruit, cream, and chocolate, covered with meringue, fits in perfectly with the atmosphere of carnival. It gets its name from the word 'prinjoli' - Maltese for pine-nuts, which are used both in the filling and topping. Prinjolata normally comes in a huge domed shape and is sold by weight per piece. Prominently displayed in the shop windows of confectionaries during carnival time, it adds even more colour to the festivities.

Also traditionally associated with carnival are the 'perlini'. These equally colourful sugar-coated almonds were in the past thrown to children in the crowd from the carnival floats as they went around the streets of Valletta.

3. The 'Parata'

Carnival celebrations always kick off with the traditional dance known as 'il-Parata', and this is one of those customs that was introduced by the Knights which has survived to this day.

Traditionally, it was customary for people, as well as groups of dancers, to gather on St. George’s Square in front of the Grand Master’s Palace, to wait for the reading of the bandu from the palace balcony, granting permission for the start of the celebrations. As soon as this was done, the groups of dancers, dressed as Knights and Ottomans, would perform a mock fight, re-enacting the Great Siege of 1565, in honour of that very famous and important victory.