With the passing of January, Malta descends into a state of revelry and colourful frenzy, as social norms are bent during the five days of Carnival. The Maltese, as they tend to do about everything else, put their heart and soul into this jovial five day feast; some even start planning for these days a whole year in advance. Let us guide you through the nitty gritty of Carnival in Malta – from where it all started, to what will happen this weekend.
The word carnival derives from the Italian words ‘carne vale’ which literally means ‘meat is allowed’. During the five days of Carnival meat and lavish food could be enjoyed before the 40 days of abstaining during Lent, where meat was renounced and more humble food was consumed, before the joyous feast of Easter. This fasting period was anticipated by 5 days of gluttony, parades, and general frolic. Carnival in Malta can be traced back to the 1400s, and was boosted further by the Knights of St John. Carnival during the time of the Knights consisted of various tournaments and pageants, during which the Knights themselves competed for rewards. Carnival floats became a tradition during Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Vallette’s rule – yet it was the Knights’ ships which were decorated and displayed in all their glory, and not the land floats.
During the time of the Knights another Maltese Carnival tradition was born – the historic ‘Parata’, which is a re-enactment of the 16th Century struggle of the Maltese population and the Knights of St John against the rival forces of the Ottoman Turks, who had besieged Malta during their attack in 1565. The ‘Parata’ was taken quite seriously during the time of the Knights, and the Maltese people eagerly awaited the performance. In modern times the ‘Parata’ became less of a dramatic event and more of a commemorative one, with dance troupes performing the traditional dance/battle between the two opposing forces. Carnival in Malta seemed to wane slightly during the 19th Century, but continued steadily even under British rule, making it a tradition that spanned more than six centuries, and which is still going strong today.
Nowadays Carnival is a period that entices a section of the population to the extent of dedicating a whole year to its preparation – secretly coming up with ideas for colourful floats and accompanying dance routines, ornate foam costumes and witty mottos. The various Carnival troupes around the island enter their floats in the annual competition, determining which float is the best out of all on the very last night of Carnival. These crews are extremely dedicated to their work, spending most evenings and weekends throughout the year working on next year’s Carnival, having only five short days to enjoy their year’s work. The floats are made out of papier-mache and feature bright, garish colours and various decorative lights. Every float has a specific theme and has an accompanying group of costume-clad dancers to match.
The floats are paraded through the streets of Valletta during the 5 days of Carnival, with the last parade taking place on Mardi Gras, or the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. The final parade takes place in the evening at St Anne Street, in Floriana. After their final performance, the floats meet an unfortunate end – they are destroyed as preparations for the following Carnival commence. Carnival is a time of year associated with Valletta, where most of the spectacles take place – yet these past few years have seen a resurgence in a different type of Carnival in various towns and villages around Malta; a more spontaneous Carnival, which sometimes even borders on the macabre. Yet no town does spontaneity like Nadur…
The Carnival in Gozo is a totally different experience than its Maltese counterpart. Float parades and dance shows are still held in Victoria, albeit varying slightly from the Maltese. Yet it is in Nadur that the Gozitan Carnival reaches its apex. The Carnival in Nadur is spontaneous, meaning that no committee or governing board imposes its rules upon the festivities. This makes this Carnival an unpredictable one, where characters of all shapes and forms roam the streets; most having a satirical or political undertone to their getup. The Nadur Carnival takes place at night, and the place is extremely popular – so if you’re planning on visiting, make sure to get there early-ish. Costumes are as unpredictable as the Carnival itself – past years have included people dressed up as politicians, nuns, priests and other religious figures, and even as Jesus Christ himself – a costume which did not go down well with authorities. Grotesque masks always abound, making an easy costume for the lazy reveler. The festivities here continue well into the early morning hours and are definitely less PG-rated than the Valletta or Victoria Carnivals. It is worth a visit though, especially if you happen to be visiting Malta’s sister island during this period.
This year’s Carnival will take place between the 8th and the 13th February, starting off at St George’s Square in Valletta. Make sure to grab some Prinjolata (the traditional sweet treat associated with Carnival in Malta) and enjoy the show! Coinciding with the year-long spectacle of V18, Valletta’s tenure as the European Capital of Culture, one can expect great things from this year’s Carnival. Whether you celebrate Carnival in Malta or in Gozo, it is certainly a memorable event not to be missed!