One part religious festival, one part riotous street party, and one part fireworks show: Festas in Malta are among the most traditional – and certainly the most colourful – celebrations on the archipelago.
There are a few things to anticipate when attending one of your first festas in Malta. Begin by banking on swollen crowds, all done up in their festive best. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to sample qubbajt (Maltese nougat) or mqaret (fried date cakes) – both of which are among the staple treats at such occasions. Then there are the banners and papier maché statues, the performers and the fireworks displays, the processions and the dancing, all of which contribute to an unabashed carnival atmosphere. You can count on frequent festas, too. From around April until September, a new street party seems to spring up at least once a week, as these events don’t just coincide with the biggest Christian holidays. Instead, festas in Malta celebrate a number of national holidays and holy days, and even the smallest of villages will take to the streets to honour their particular patron saints, such as the Feast of St Joseph. But it’s not all about saints, there’s the festa to celebrate St Paul’s Shipwreck and the Vitorja to celebrate numerous victories. Not a local? Fear not: Maltese hospitality means that all are invited to join the party… even if you haven’t yet mastered the difference between St. Paul and St. Publius.
Kicking off the festa season is the Feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck, a national holiday in Malta held on 10th February. According to local lore, St. Paul famously landed by accident in Malta in the first century, and today his nautical error is celebrated by all manner of jubilant activities. Make your way to Valletta for marching bands, piles of confetti and fireworks over a photogenic skyline.
Another festa that takes place early in the year, the Feast of St. Joseph (or Jum San Ġużepp, as it’s known locally), is held annually on 19th March. Though it ranks among the most popular festas in Malta, the principle celebrations are held in historic Rabat, where churches are strewn with colourful lights, statues are paraded and picnics are enjoyed.
A centuries-old feast day in celebration of St. Peter and St. Paul, Mnarja is reputed to have Ancient Roman origins. Held on 29th June, the early summer holiday is primarily celebrated in Mdina and Rabat. Horse racing keeps things animated, while għana (Maltese folk music) provides the accompaniment and an agricultural market shows off the local bounty. Rabbit is also traditionally eaten on Mnarja, making this the ideal time to sample one of Malta’s traditional plates. Sorry about that, Thumper.
The title of Malta’s top partiers may well go to the people of Mqabba, a village that takes Mary as its patron saint. Though the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady is ostensibly held on 15th August, in this southern village the celebrations kick off from the end of July onwards. Still not sated? Six other Maltese villages – including Mosta, Qrendi, and Victoria – are also known for their celebrations of this particular festa.
Il-Vitorja, or Victory Day, sees four different holidays crammed into one. Held each year on 8th September, Victory Day marks the end of the Great Siege of 1565. And the end of French armed occupation in 1800. Oh, and the Italian armistice in 1943. Expect military parades and regattas in the morning, with the added bonus of the il-Bambina festa in the evening, which celebrates the nativity of Mary.
Haven’t yet reached your festa peak? You surely will by season’s end, considering the sheer plenitude of holidays (no one will ever question the Maltese predilection for celebration). The 2015 festas in Malta schedule can be found here, for those looking to book out their diaries early. Now, start practicing: Il-festa t-tajba!
Are you an art lover or culture vulture holidaying in Malta? Well, you’ll be pleased to find that this Mediterranean island may be small, but it packs a punch when it comes to art and culture. Here are six recommended destinations to add to your itinerary to experience the best of Malta’s art scene.