Holy Week Traditions in Malta
Malta is known for being a religious country, with churches found practically around every corner, and numerous feasts celebrated all year round. But this becomes especially evident during Holy Week - undoubtedly the most important week in the liturgical calendar - which is celebrated around the island through numerous traditional activities.
Preparations for this important week start as early as Ash Wednesday, which always comes exactly 40 days before Easter Sunday, and immediately following the last day of carnival: after those few days of wild revelry, Ash Wednesday traditionally marked the first day of the penitential period in preparation for Holy Week. Of course, while in the past, fasting on a daily basis was obligatory, rules in this respect have since been relaxed in the Catholic Church, and obligatory fasting is now only limited to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, even though there are still those who voluntarily do it every Wednesday and Friday throughout the whole Lenten period.
Among the numerous other activities organised during this time, including the Lenten sermons held in all parishes on the island, undoubtedly the most significant is the procession dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, held on the Friday before Good Friday. This feast has a special significance for many of the Maltese and attracts thousands of devotees, who recite the rosary while following the statue of the Virgin Mary as it is carried through the streets of their town or village. A couple of days later, Palm Sunday officially marks the start of Holy Week itself, but nowadays, most events tend to commence on Maundy Thursday.
Traditionally, Maundy Thursday - the eve of Good Friday - is when the 'Seven Visits' are held. In every church, after the Mass of the Lord's Supper - which commemorates Jesus Christ's last meal with his Apostles - the consecrated hosts that have been reserved for use on the following day are placed in a tabernacle on the Altar of Repose. The churches are then left open till late so that people can express their devotion in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Throughout the parishes of Malta and Gozo, there are a number of artistic examples of these Altars of Repose, which are always beautifully decorated for the occasion. The tradition is that one would visit seven of these altars in seven different churches to pray at each, and it is possible to do this until the start of the 3 pm service on Good Friday.
During this time, the churches themselves would also be decorated for the occasion, with their interiors draped mostly in purple or black to reflect the period of mourning. Another sign of mourning still practised in some churches is the use of the ċuqlajta, usually from Maundy Thursday till Holy Saturday. This traditional instrument, essentially a large wooden clapper, replaces the ringing of church bells, which is usually associated with much more joyous occasions.
During these days, several enthusiasts also organise exhibitions related to the period, including the popular 'mejda tal-appostli' - a lifesize or scale model representation of the table used during the Last Supper. The food used for these displays, most commonly held in the premises of the village band club, was in the past distributed among the poor and needy of the parish. Other traditional exhibitions, sometimes set up in the enthusiasts’ private residences - which are temporarily opened to the general public- include biblical representations made from coloured rice or salt, as well as sets of small scale replicas of the statues used during the Good Friday processions.
A more recent tradition that has become customary on the night of Maundy Thursday is the procession to the top of the hill hosting the Laferla Cross - is-Salib tal-Għolja - located just outside the town of Siġġiewi. The path leading up the hill is illuminated with torches and candles, and the walk up it is meant to symbolise the difficult journey which Jesus Christ undertook, whilst carrying the cross, to the top of Golgotha, where he was crucified. Some of the more devout pilgrims choose to walk barefooted as a sign of penance. This tradition, which has been taking place for a number of years, has increased in popularity, and every year attracts a growing number of participants.
The Holy Week commemorations reach their zenith on Good Friday when the Catholic Church celebrates the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Good Friday is a public holiday in Malta, with many choosing to attend the traditional processions held in the various towns and cities. These are without a doubt the biggest events taking place during Holy Week, with statues representing various scenes from Christ’s passion being carried around the streets, while accompanied by local amateur actors in period costume.
Good Friday processions in Malta date back to the 16th century and were probably influenced by Spanish and Sicilian traditions. The first-ever such procession in Malta was organised by the Franciscan friars in Rabat, but these days, the several-hours-long event is also held in many other towns and villages across Malta and Gozo, such as in Valletta, the Three Cities, Mosta, Qormi, Żebbuġ and Xagħra, and has become an integral part of Maltese culture.
The statues, some of them very old, and mostly the work of talented local artists, are generally made from papier-mâché, although other materials, such as wood, were also occasionally used. In the past, they were generally standardised throughout the different localities to sets of eight, representing Christ’s Agony in the Garden; the Scourging at the Pillar; the Crowning with Thorns; the Fall under the Cross; Veronica with Christ’s Face on her Veil; the Crucifixion Group; Christ’s Burial; and Our Lady of Sorrows. With time, however, a number of parishes added more episodes, such as the Last Supper; the Betrayal of Judas; the meeting of Christ with his Blessed Mother; Simon of Cyrene; and the Dead Body of Jesus is given to his Mother, known as il-Pieta', so that today, Good Friday sets around the Maltese Islands range from seven to twelve statues.
Six to ten men are usually required to carry each statue, and the locals consider it a huge honour to get the opportunity to do so. Many others also participate in different ways; from the musicians that form part of the band playing sombre tunes, to the hundreds of adults and children wearing costumes to represent historical and biblical characters. In addition, as part of a centuries-old tradition, in some places, these processions also include a number of penitents dressed in white robes and hoods, who walk barefoot, sometimes with chains tied around their ankles, as an act of penance, or in fulfilment of a vow.
The sombre mood is finally lifted on Easter Sunday, with the ringing of bells returning to announce the Resurrection of Christ. His victory over death is the most important theme of the Christian faith, and after the previous 40 days of solemn reflection, the Maltese are finally able to celebrate this joyous occasion. The main event is yet another procession, held on Sunday morning, but this time, the statue represents the Risen Christ and is accompanied by celebratory and festive tunes.
Once again, it is possible that this tradition of the Easter procession was introduced into Malta in the 16th century, following the arrival of the Knights of St. John. Records show that during the 18th century it was regularly held in a number of localities, especially in the harbour cities. Most of the statues in use today were however commissioned after the end of World War Two. They depict the Risen Christ in all his glory, his arms raised towards heaven in a gesture of triumph over death. Once again, quite a number of different localities across Malta and Gozo organise this annual procession, with the most popular being those held in the Three Cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua.
The climax of this procession comes right at the end, as the route is cleared for the statue-bearers to run with the statue, symbolising Christ’s victory, while the crowd cheers and applauds, and confetti rain down from the balconies lining the streets. The statue is then carried triumphantly back inside the church, as the crowds make their way home for Easter lunch with their extended families.
One of the best things about Easter is the delicious variety of traditional foods and sweets associated with this time. But first comes Lent of course - traditionally a period of fasting and abstinence. Among the more popular foods associated with this time is kwareżimal, a traditional Maltese recipe made from ground almonds, among other ingredients. Traditionally, kwareżimal would have been made without using eggs or dairy products, as interestingly, in the past, it was meat and animal derivatives that were forbidden during this time, rather than sugar - explaining why kwareżimal was traditionally consumed during Lent even in those years when fasting was obligatory. The name of this pastry comes from the Italian 'quaresima', a reference to the 40 days of Lent.
Good Friday is of course another very important day of abstinence, and many people are careful to avoid consuming any meat. Most shops catering to the crowds attending the Good Friday processions sell traditional qassatat filled with spinach, peas, tuna and anchovies, while Qagħaq tal-Appostli are also in demand. These are circular loaves of unleavened bread that are studded with roasted almonds and sprinkled with sesame seeds. There is one type of sweet that is commonly consumed on this day; karamelli tal-ħarrub are made from carob syrup and were traditionally okay to eat during Lent because no animal products are used in their production. However, despite still being popular today, they do actually contain quite a large amount of sugar.
Easter Sunday brings with it the famous figolli - home-made pastries which are traditionally donated to family and friends, especially children. Although in the past they were made in the shape of a rabbit, an egg, a lamb or something associated with Easter, today they come in many different shapes, all made from sweet pastry with an almond filling. After coming out of the oven, they are allowed to cool, before being decorated with icing or melted chocolate, as well as a half chocolate egg wrapped in colourful foil paper. In many parishes, there is still the tradition where children take their figolla to be blessed by the parish priest during the Easter morning procession, although today one tends to also see the more modern chocolate Easter Eggs.
Indeed, as is the case with Christmas and other annual festivities, Malta has in the last years seen the introduction of new trends to supplement the already existing traditional ones. What has not changed is the importance given by the Maltese to the sacred nature and solemnity of Holy Week. There is no doubt that the celebrations experienced during this week continue to be a quintessential part of Maltese culture.