Christmas is a highly celebrated festivity in Malta and Gozo, both for its religious significance a well as in its more social aspect. The season is celebrated to its fullest on the Maltese Islands, with the active participation of many; Nativity scenes, displays of cribs, carol services and other events are organised in each locality.
For a very special, spiritual evening, join the congregation at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta for candlelit carol singing. Other Baroque parish churches across the Islands are just as awe-inspiring during advent. Their interiors are decked out in papal crimson and altars are adorned with flowers. All churches have a calendar of events, ranging from the procession of Mary and Joseph, to streets with groups of children carol singing.
Cribs are positively everywhere, from private houses to small chapels. Visiting cribs is a popular activity at Christmastime and many locals spend time going round touring the various ‘presepju’ displays. Some are very artistic and elaborate, with figures moving around mechanically and a degree of detail that comes from hours of meticulous work by dedicated craftsmen.
One of the most spectacular cribs, is situated in Gozo, where a whole town brings the ‘crib’ to life. Bethlehem f’ Għajnsielem is an animated nativity village spread on 20,000sqm of land. It offers naturalistic reproduction of the environ of Bethlehem and the timeless story of Nativity every December at ‘Ta Passi’ fields in Ghajnsielem. Between 6th December 2015 to 3rd January 2016, around 150 actors including three newborns bring the timeless Christmas story to life as never before. The atmosphere will simply be unique… horses turn mills, villagers go about their jobs, shepherds inhabit caves, animals roam in enclosed spaces and a poor unknown couple tend their newly-born in a grotto.
The Christmas Crib’s origins can be traced directly back to the early 17th century, when Dominican friars in Rabat set up their own, local crib display. A tradition imported from neighbouring Naples and Sicily, the very first cribs were supposedly imported by noblemen, though they weren’t immediately embraced by locals; rumour has it they many were burned as firewood. But despite that failing vote of confidence, it didn’t take long for the tradition to take root, and for the cribs to adopt their own, uniquely local appearance.
Visually, Maltese presepju differ from generic nativity scenes in their depictions of the Maltese landscape. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus may be found within a manger, but here it’s surrounded by rocky stones, porous caves, Maltese flour windmills, and ancient ruins – all signifiers of the traditional Maltese landscape, in other words. Aside from the setting, the figurines in the cribs, called pasturi, were also traditional, and produced by Maltese artisans out of sculpted and painted clay.
Today’s cribs are, of course, more elaborate than their predecessors. Having grown in scale and level of detail, many now feature mechanical parts and moving figurines in addition to ornate local landscapes. And while most Maltese families have a crib on display at home, there are a number of viewing options for visitors looking to uncover this favourite of Maltese traditions.