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Holy Week Celebrations
Past and Present
The worldwide yearly commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection reached Malta hundreds of years ago. Having served in the past as Malta’s maritime gateway to sailors and merchants, the maritime town of Birgu was usually the first to absorb alien customs. It was mainly from this town that such innovative customs were spread to other localities all over the islands to become part of the Maltese folklore.
The Knights’ Period (1530 – 1798)
Upon settling in Birgu, the Order of St John patronised the small church of St Lawrence as its conventual church. It was here that the knights were to manifest their religious fervour towards the Christian faith by upholding the traditional rites they had exercised when in Rhodes up to a few years earlier. The Order had brought with it various venerated relics related to Christ. Amongst these, a silver coin, known as Il Sacro Denaro, said to be one of thirty silver coins awarded to Judas by the Jewish priests for betraying Jesus Christ. There was also a thorn, reputedly one from the crown, placed by the tormentors on the head of Jesus to mock him prior to his crucifixion. In order to emulate the Last Supper, on Maundy Thursday, the Grand Master of the Order of St John ceremoniously used to wash the feet of twelve destitute persons selected from the town of Birgu. These were also presented with a bread loaf as a charitable act to emulate Christ’s own distribution of bread during the Last Supper.
At the time when the Order was in Malta, three different processions were organised in Birgu during Holy Week. The first was held on Wednesday. The main participants in this procession were the forzati and the bonavogli, the former being condemned criminals, the latter, oarsmen who engaged of their own volition to row on the Order’s galleys. The procession started from the chapel dedicated to the Madonna tal-Karmnu, situated close to Fort Saint Angelo, where the Order was based. It is said that the custom whereby participants drag heavy chains, shackled to their ankles originated from this procession. At the time, only one statuary group, that of the Crucifixion, was carried in the procession. Participants dressed themselves up in black robes.
A second procession was held on the following day, Maundy Thursday, (Ħamis ix-Xirka). This was organised by the Dominican friars, whose procession exited from the church dedicated to the Annunciation. The Dominicans had established their own convent and church in Birgu in 1528, just two years prior to the arrival of the Order.
By far, the most important procession was the one held on Good Friday, that exited St Lawrence church. The devotion towards the Passion of Christ was abetted by the Rhodiot community that had also settled with the Knights of St John in Birgu. Eventually, in the 17th century, statues that represented the various stages of the passion of Christ were slowly being introduced as a highlight in this procession. It is assumed that the custom of having the statuary dressed in drapery, was borrowed from Spain by Maltese merchants who regularly exported cotton to the Iberian ports. The pious devotion of members of the Confraternity of the Holy Crucifix, who met in the oratory that bears the same name, must have been a key factor to the further establishment of a more pompous procession.
Holy Week Celebrations in Recent Years
Good Friday and Easter processions, together with the various other pious manifestations commence on the Friday, prior to Holy Week, with the procession of devotees who follow the statue of the Madonna tad-Duluri (Our Lady of Sorrows). As required in the liturgical calendar, on Palm Sunday, (known in Maltese as Ħadd Lazzru), the Gospel of Matthew, recounting the Passion of Christ is read during mass by the celebrant.
Maundy Thursday in Birgu
On the evening of Maundy Thursday, mass is held in St Lawrence Church during which twelve persons from the Birgu community are chosen to sit on the presbytery and have their feet ‘washed’ by the celebrant. As happened in the Order’s era, these participants are also presented with a large circular bread loaf to take home, (known as il-Qagħqa tal-Appostli).
Right after this ceremonial mass the faithful start their devout visits and prayers to whichever chapel is set up to represent the Altar of Repose, (Maltese: l-Altar tar-Repożizzjoni – formerly known as is-Sepulkru). Such chapels are finely decorated with vetch (Maltese: ġulbiena) and arum lilies (M. buqari) up until Easter Saturday. Because in Birgu there are only three churches open for the occasion, people carry out the so called ‘Seven Visits’, ‘il Visti tas-Seba’ Knejjes’ twice over in each chapel and then one extra in one of them. Alternately, some would opt to walk or drive to the churches of the nearby towns of Bormla or l-Isla, to cover a total of seven church visits. The churches that are open for such visits in Birgu are those of St Lawrence Parish, the Annunciation Church of the Dominican Friars, and the chapel attached to the Benedictine Cloister known as Santa Skolastika.
The church visits are also possible on the following morning, on Good Friday, up until noon. Whereas in olden times, one would only see devotees reciting and counting their Rosary beads, nowadays, crowds predominantly consist of curious spectators, who enter the churches to admire the decorative set up for Holy Week. Alongside such attendance, people often include visits to several ’Last Supper’ displays or else, displays of statues in miniature that represent the various stations of the Passion of Christ.
Good Friday Processions
Soon after noon, In the Annunciation church, the Dominic Friars hold the traditional ‘Three Hour Sermon’ which today is curtailed to a mere three quarters of an hour, wherein the preacher focuses his sermon on the ‘Seven Last Words of Christ’. During this ceremony, the figure of Christ with articulated limbs hanging from the cross, that stands above the main altar, is lowered down at intervals. It is then laid down on the presbytery. The congregation is then invited by the celebrant to walk up to the presbytery and pay homage the figure of Christ as it lies on the floor.
By three o’clock in the afternoon, the whole town becomes eerily quiet. However, by then, scores of individuals would be proceeding to the parish church in order to prepare themselves for the Good Friday procession. Sixty six pall bearers, get dressed up in white garbs (M. konfratija), while some one hundred and thirty actors are dressed and made up to represent biblical characters in preparation for the procession that follows.
By 5.30 pm, the eight statuaries representing the eight different stations are slowly carried out of the parish church at intervals, perched on top of the flight of steps and then proceed down and into St Lawrence Street. The bearers, make their way uphill towards the main square of Birgu and continue with their measured steps to other parts of the town. The pedestalled statues in the procession are separated one from the other by actors representing Biblical characters. The San Lawrenz, Vittoriosa Band accompanies the procession with its sombre tunes that befit the occasion.
Many of the statues that make up the procession are not made of papier mâché, as is usually the custom in many towns and villages. Instead the statues in Birgu are composed of various material such as wood, and dressed up in real silk drapery. In olden times many of these statues were jealously retained throughout the year inside the residences of well to do families of the town. Then they were eventually all collected and stored inside the Oratory of the Holy Crucifix. Incidentally, because of the large number of statues kept in storage here, the oratory, was nicknamed as il-Ġenna (Eng. ‘Paradise’), just because the whole ensemble of statues gave the place a semblance of Paradise where all saints gather.
As of recent years, throughout Lent (Maltese: Randan) the community of St Lawrence church has introduced a couple of Holy Week activities. Following Ash Wednesday, on each Friday, a statuary representing a different station from the Passion of Christ is taken out of the Oratory of the Holy Crucifix and carried shoulder high in short solemn procession into the town square and back. Another innovative procession is held on Wednesday, (Maltese: L-Erbgħa tat-Tniebri). This procession has been termed il-Purċissjoni s-Sewda, (Eng. ‘the Black Procession’. It is called so as the participants dress in black garb emulate the procession held by the Forzati and Bonavogli of old.
In olden times, Easter Saturday was spent idle; on radio one would only listen to funerary marches. However, on Easter Saturday, however, all would wake up to a jubilant mood as the church bells peal happily. Nowadays, this festive mood has been shifted to Sunday. By ten o’clock, thousands flock will have flocked to to the town square of Birgu to observe the Easter procession. Gone is the mournful mood of Holy Week. People are dressed in their Sunday best, (some females in the crowd seem to be vying for attention with their new summer attire). All await the appearance of the statue of the Risen Christ (Kristu Rxoxt) holding the Christian cross banner in hand, (Maltese: bandiera tar-Reliġjon). The procession, is really very small in stature, being made up of just a few pall bearers dressed in their white garb, carrying the pedestal and statue. The local musical San Lawrenz band heads the procession, this time playing uplifting festive tunes.
The old custom of children holding a figolla, the almond pastry, shaped in the form of a human figure or animal, (formerly in the shape of a lamb) to be blessed by the statue of the Risen Christ, is nowadays almost imperceptible. The statue is from time to time handed over to a group of youths. These grab hold of the wooden poles that hold the pedestal and at a given signal dash off with the statue on a short sprint of some hundred metres. This, to the joyous uproar of the crowd watching in awe. This run is a symbolic gesture that pronounces the joy of Christians at Christ’s resurrection.
Once the procession is over, families will get together for their special Easter lunch. In the meantime, in Birgu, tradition dictates that a man beating a base drum that he borrows from somewhere will march through the streets of the town, playing a repetitive tune. In earlier times this custom in Birgu took place on Saturday morning. A small crowd of children usually trails along. The once popular stanza chanted on this day went something like this:
Tirli tim, tirlitira
Kristu Rxoxta bil-Bandiera
Għax tal-Birgu ġeru (ġrew) bih.
U ta’ ……...… waqgħu bih (mentioning another neighbouring town)
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Most of the above is gathered from my own personal recollection of what occurred in Birgu during Holy Week. Thanks to Anton Gellel and Emanuel Busuttil Dougall of Birgu for the updates on present day customs.
Agius Anthony, ‘Origins of Holy Week processions and statues’, The Sunday Times of Malta, March 24, 2013. Bonnici Brian, Il-Ġimgħa l-Kbira f’Malta. Sensiela Kotba Soċjalisti, 1998. Cassar Pullicino Joseph, ‘Tradition and Folklore in Birgu’, Birgu a Maritime City Vol. 1, pp. 363 – 366. Malta University Services Ltd. 1993. Mangion Fabian, ‘Carlo Darmanin: a pioneer in Good Friday iconography’. The Sunday Times of Malta, April 14, 2019. Zammit Gabarretta Anthony, ‘The Good Friday Procession of Vittoriosa’, Heritage Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 341 – 345. Midsea Publications. Zarb Tarcisio, Folklore of An Island, PEG, 1998.
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