Crèches, nativities, or cribs – whatever your preferred nomenclature, there’s no doubt that these advent-themed displays play a major part in Christmas celebrations all over the world. And yet, the true masters of the Christmas crib are undoubtedly the Maltese. Found on every street corner across the city, these nativity scenes are among the most popular and important Maltese traditions.
Given that it was settled by ancient Phoenicians, played a part in the Odyssey and was supposedly home to St. Paul, Malta excels at all things old fashioned. It’s only logical that the Christmas crib (or presepju as it’s known) has found a permanent home at the Inquisitor’s Palace. They are not the only unique Maltese traditions, though; visitors should also try Imbuljuta tal-Qastan, drunk once a year after Midnight Mass.
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.
While no Christmas in Malta would be complete without meandering amongst these elaborate displays, the small island is also home to a number of other offbeat traditions that travellers should do their best to discover. On Christmas Eve, for instance, a sweet “soup” of chocolate, chestnuts, and orange peel known as Imbuljuta tal-Qastan is enjoyed after the Midnight Mass (instant cocoa mix it certainly isn’t). The Christmas Eve Procession that takes to Malta’s streets – with a life-sized baby Jesus in tow – is another colourful local tradition, while the Maltese “Sermon of the Child” sees pint-sized speakers address those attending Midnight Mass. But among these Maltese traditions, few are as ancient and beloved as the Christmas crib. Keep an eye out if you’re visiting during the advent – it shouldn’t be long before you spot one.
To begin, wander into almost any church across the country, and you’re bound to uncover a Christmas crib. The local “Friends of the Crib Society,” meanwhile, stages a major annual exhibition, which this year will be held from 5th to 21st December at St. Francis Church Hall on Melita Street in Valletta. Comprising roughly 100 different traditional cribs made from all kinds of diverse materials, it’s the ideal entry into this unusual tradition. The National Museum of Ethnography at the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa is also home to a permanent crib installation, and for those who like their cribs super-sized, the Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem is an annual, live nativity scene that turns part of Gozo into a full, Biblically inspired village.