How the Maltese made merry in the 19th century


Throughout the 19th century, the Maltese folk hardly had anything to feel happy about. What with a large percentage of them employed only sporadically, and hundreds others begging in the streets of the harbour towns? This not to mention the poor standard of personal health and the mortality rate amongst children, claimed to be the highest in Europe. People at the time were simply concerned with scraping a living and feeding the mouths of their family more than anything else. Nevertheless, humankind being what it is, we all require to regenerate our spirits with some lighter moments.

Festive celebrations

In his Description of Malta and Gozo, (1838) G.C. Badger states that the most frequent source of amusement for the Maltese were their religious feasts. As still the custom today, back in the 19th century, many looked forward to such religious celebrations with great enthusiasm and anticipation. The psychological benefits of such festivities made good for the duller and darker days.

festa Jubilee RabatAs the years rolled by, throughout the 19th century, feasts spread more and more away from the church parvis onto the town square and into the streets of the locality, as the processions with the statue of the saint gained popularity. Andrew Bigelow, an erudite American minister and scholar, when in Malta in February of 1827, happened to observe the proceedings of the feast of St Paul in Valletta. He recalls that on the eve of the feast day, the parish church was impressively illuminated on the inside and out. Balconies close to the St Paul’s Shipwreck church were decorated with long drapery that reached far below. Bigelow also gives an account of the solemn procession of the 10th, describing the general atmosphere as hundreds of devotees gathered to look musicians from Zejtun maybeupon the gilded statue in awe as it was carried out of church, shoulder-high. The atmosphere was solemn, but there was the deafening noise of the loud pealing of bells, while the air was full of burning incense. He also describes the contrast in the vestments of the higher clergy in comparison with the modest attire of the bare-footed discalcised and mendicant monks who accompanied the procession. All this provided a spectacle that the simple folk relished and talked about for days on end. Apparently one occurrence that went missing in his description was the sound of fireworks. However, this is accounted for a few years later by another foreigner residing Malta, Faris Ash-Shidyaq, a Lebanese scholar. Ash-Shidyaq states that during his stay, firework displays proved to be very popular during such feast days.

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Throughout the 19th century, such festivities developed on a larger scale. As from the early 1860’s, the small musical street bands started to organise themselves into bigger ensembles, each with its own band club. Besides the seated performances, such musical bands accompanied the processions to provide a more cheerful air.

costume ghonella jew curniena bostaApart from these village feasts, there were other religious events in the Church’s calendar that offered an even more powerful opportunity for jollification. Such fair was provided by two mega-pilgrimages, in which the Bishop and the Cathedral Chapter participated. One of these was the traditional feast of St Peter and St Paul, better known as L-Imnarja. The pilgrimage started from the Mdina Cathedral, proceeded out of the town gate and headed towards the Grotto of St Paul in Rabat, to return some time later back to the Cathedral. Thousands of Maltese practically deserted their towns and villages to take a two or three hour ride, or trekked it all the way to Mdina. Some even stayed there overnight to enjoy the Illuminaria – that is, the illumination of the Cathedral facade, that of Mdina’s noble buildings and the town’s bastions. This was a unique spectacle not to be missed by the simple folk who were accustomed to their village alleys simply turned pitch black after dusk.

Three days after Easter, another pilgrimage took place, this time in honour of San Girgor. Hundreds of clergymen as well as thousands of people, some participating as members of confraternities, took part in the pilgrimage that wound its way from Tarxien and Paola to converge onto Żejtun. This and the Mnarja festivities carried with them not only a sense of religiosity for the pious due to their solemn aura, but also a great sense of anticipation for the festive atmosphere that was to follow.

festa san girgor hdejn in nazzarenu zejtunAs the solemn processions came to a halt and the religious rituals were done with, those who came from distant localities sought a good spot where to enjoy a hearty midday meal, turning to the food stuff that they had carried with them from home. And what a meal it was. We have all heard of the traditional fenkata that was customary on the eve of l-Imnarja, inside the Buskett grove. Similarly, at San Girgor one partook of loafs of bread, cheeses, olives and what not, all washed down by flagons full of wine. As in Imnarja, those in Żejtun were entertained by traditional music and song (għana), as well as by folk dancing. The scene thus changed from one of piety and reverence to one of great merriment.

A poem published in the periodical, Giahan, of April 8, 1847, describes the scene of such merrymaking witnessed after the pilgrimage of San Girgor. The following stanza illustrates the festive mood; however, interestingly enough, the scene described, is set in Tarxien and not in Żejtun, where the pilgrimage ended. It could well be that some, feted in Żejtun while others did so in Tarxien, if not also in Marsaxlokk as is the practice today.

Min jista jpingi f’dan il fuljett       
San Ghirgor taghna – dac iz-zufjett       
Minn coll nies tara – f’dac Hal Tarxiel [sic]
Li trasset jieklu u imbiet bi kliel!               
Who can describe in this leaflet
The feast of Saint Gregory -  all that buffoonery
There in Tarxiel people of all sorts meet
All huddled together to eat, and down wine 
as they please!

loghob gostraThe Lebanese Ash-Shidyaq mentioned earlier, who lived in Malta for some fifteen years, shows his disgust that during such festivities the participants got vulgar and drunk to the extreme. The same author also makes mention of the various races of horses, mules and donkeys that were held as part of the festivities. Also, according to Ash-Shidyaq, the feasts held at the seaside localities included a very popular game known as il-ġostra. Ash-Shidyaq claims that this game was a crowd puller of the first magnitude, as hundreds of people watched the young participants’ attempting to walk the greased pole to reach the flag. The spectators often got very excited, and they cheered and jeered whenever a contestant lost his balance and tumbled headlong into the sea below.

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Some fifty years later, Maturin M. Ballou, an American travel writer who visited Malta in 1887, tells us that the religious feasts were many, and he makes the following observations:

The amusement which seems to be most generally resorted to in Malta is that of parading through the streets in a special garb, while displaying various banners in celebration of certain church festivals. As in the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church there are some two hundred such days in the year marked for similar displays. The natives are inclined also to make these occasions an excuse for undue indulgences, and carelessness of conduct generally.


parata kav u torok - CopyReligious festivities apart, undoubtedly, the highlight of the festive calendar when one could make merry was carnival. In 1863, Gian Anton Vassallo, author of various literary works, published a tiny booklet of light-hearted poems. One of the poems, is called, Cliem tal-Poplu (‘The People’s Voice’) and carries a sub-titled, Sibt il-Karnival (Carnival Saturday). The poem gives a detailed account of what went on during carnival days of yore. He also implores the powers that be, not to spoil any of the carnival revelry, claiming that this was a unique occasion for the simple folk to let their hair down. This message might well be referring to a particular incident that occurred in 1846.

Close to carnival of that year, the Governor of Malta, Sir Patrick Stuart, a strict Sabbatarian, forbade the three-day long carnival to commence on Sunday as was the custom. No doubt such an imposition did not go down well with the would-be revellers. These were not about to accept this prohibition with their hands down. An ingenious plot of civil disobedience, perhaps the first in Malta, was devised. On that Sunday, a sizeable crowd took to the streets of Valletta in the late hours of the afternoon, tugging along all sorts of domestic animals, such as mules, donkeys and dogs. Not to break the law, the crowd did not wear their carnival costumes. Instead they donned their own domicile animals with all sorts of colourful and bizarre attire. When reaching Piazza San Giorgio, in front of the Governor’s Palace, the crowd became more agitated and protested vehemently. Soon matters got to a boiling point. A small party splintered from the main crowd and headed towards the Anglican Cathedral and the residence of the Anglican pastor, situated a couple of blocks away, to carry on with their protest there. This they did as some had got it into their minds that the new regulation had been imposed on the advice of the Anglican Bishop. Another section of the mob proceeded to hackle the soldiers on duty at the Main Guard in Piazza San Giorgio, while these were beating the Retreat. Some soldiers were manhandled and their musical instruments damaged. On that day, many Maltese were arrested, taken to court and jailed for their civil-turned-violent disobedience.

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kamusellxTurning once again to the comments of the Lebanese Ash-Shidyaq, the author confirms that carnival was a major occasion for the people to make merry. During these festivities, he scorned those dressed in costumes, ‘as men were foolish enough to dress up as women and women dressed up as men’. He also informs us that the British Governor, though not a Catholic, organised a carnival ball, whereby he invited not only British co-patriots but also the upper crust of the Maltese society. Ash-Shidyaq got invited to several carnival balls; he was often upset at being taken for a maskerat, dressed as he was in his true traditional Arab garb! He also ruefully observes that the Maltese guests not only ate whatever was offered at the table, but quite often pinched food which they smuggled inside their sleeves to take back home for the kids!

Once again I will cite Maturin M. Ballou’s, the late 19th century travel-writer mentioned earlier, as he also describes the unruly behaviour of the Maltese during carnival days:

The Carnival is also made much of by the common people, and indeed it would seem that all classes participate. It begins on the Sunday preceding Lent and lasts three days, during which period the populace engage, to the exclusion of nearly all other occupations, in a sort of good-natured riot, not always harmless. The most ludicrous and extravagant conduct prevails, the actors being generally masked and otherwise disguised. Hardly anything that occurs and which is designed only for diversion, and not instigated by malice, is too absurd for forgiveness. Ladies are ready to engage in a battle royal from their balconies, using confetti, dried peas, beans, and flowers, which they merrily shower upon the passers-by with all possible force. Sometimes, but this is not often, unpleasant missiles are employed and serious quarrels ensue.

British pomp and circumstance

Ash-Shidyaq informs us how much the Maltese enjoyed watching the military parades that the British garrison frequently held, whether in the Floriana parade grounds, or in the streets of Valletta. It is a fact that throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the army and navy units often paraded, each with their own musical bands at various localities. The Maltese did indeed enjoy the musical displays and admired the smartness of the soldiers and their military drills. Then there were particular occasions that warranted such military shows, such as when the British commemorated an anniversary or else celebrated a victory won somewhere in the Empire or beyond. The military bands also willingly participated in Maltese festas by performing musical programmes. Such manifestations were purposely carried out so that the Maltese would endear themselves to the British way of life and for them to feel privileged to be part of the British Empire.

main guard belt

Another occasion for the Maltese to enjoy the local celebrations organised by the authorities was when a British royalty visited Malta. The streets of Valletta were then bedecked with an assortment of colourful decorative set up and the people flocked from the towns and villages in their thousands to watch in awe and enjoy the spectacles that came with that.

For instance, when in December 1838, the Queen Dowager, wife of William IV, came to spend some months in Malta for health reasons, she was welcomed with befitting pomp and circumstance. Michael Galea, in his short but detailed account of the Queen’s arrival, informs us that Valletta was geared up for the happy occasion. Governor Bouverie, dressed in his full military regalia as Lieutenant Governor of the island, welcomed the Queen as she stepped ashore at the landing steps of the Old Customs House. There she received a 21 gun salute fired from Fort St Angelo. Then the Queen and her retinue were taken in three different carriages up Crucifix Hill to enter Valletta from Porta Reale. The road from the Grand Harbour up to the Governor’s Palace was lined up with nothing less than six regiments. On the way, her coach stopped at intervals to be presented with bouquets by children. The Maltese cheered as the carriage passed by. At the onset of darkness the Governor’s Palace and many other buildings, both public as well as private were illuminated with thousands of oil lamps. Not only were the decorations put on public buildings by the authorities, even the religious orders in Valletta took it upon themselves to light up the facades of their respective convents and churches with fjakoli. At irregular intervals throughout the 19th century, there were many other occasions that provided similar mass entertainment.

For further reading on other subjects related to Maltese history and culture please click here:

Queen_Victoria_1887Another grand series of manifestations were held in 1887, when the British celebrated the Golden Jubilee of H.M. Queen Victoria. A great variety of events were organised, some held within the Governor’s Palace for distinguished guests, others for the public to enjoy. A special train service was organised from Rabat to Valletta so that people from that side of the island could also attend. A grand tombola was organised in Piazza San Giorgio for hundreds of Maltese. Boat races were also held inside the Grand Harbour. On that same evening, Governor Lord Simmons and his wife threw a grand party at the Argotti Gardens for some 900 guests. Thousands of Maltese gathered at the Floriana Granaries to watch the distinguished guests arrive. Many were also present to enjoy the grand fireworks finale set on display  in the same location.

Another occasion which falls just outside the scope of this article took place in 1901. This was the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York. Not only where these V.I.P.s given the usual prominent treatment throughout their stay. The couple was cheered off on their departure on board their royal yacht, by a grand carnival display, consisting of large sized animal figures of elephants, swans and the like, all made out of papier mache, all set afloat on barges across the Grand Harbour. Needless to say, their visit was concluded by a grand display of firework, much to the euphoria of the Maltese watching from the harbour towns.

This kind of mass entertainment wherein the Maltese people enjoyed being active organisers as well as passive onlookers thrived throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and up to present times.

Martin Morana

29 April 2021.

Sources consulted:

Cassar Carmel, ‘Everyday life in nineteen and twentieth century Malta’,
in The British Colonial Experience, 1800 -1964. Mireva Publications.
Cassar Francis Xavier, El Wasita fil-Maghrifat Ahwal Malta, Ahmed Faris
Ash-Shidyaq. 1985.
Cassar Pullicino Joseph, A Study in Maltese Folklore, University Press. 1992.
Ballou M. Maturin, The Story of Malta,  1878.
Bigelow Andrew, Travels in Malta and Sicily with Sketches of Gibraltar.
Carter Handee & Babcock, Boston. 1831.
Boissevain Jeremy, ‘Festa Partiti and the British – Exploding a Myth’, The
British Colonial Experience, 1900 – 1964
Badger George Percy, ‘Amusements’, in Description of Malta and Gozo.
Ellul Michael, History In Marble
Galea Bjagju, L-Imdina ta’ Tfuliti. Klabb Kotba Maltin, 1975.
Galea Michael, ‘A  Roaring Welcome to Governor More O’Ferrall,’ Malta –
Historical Sketches, 1970.
Galea Michael, Queen Victoria Jubilee Celebrations in Malta’,  Malta – More
Historical Sketches
. 1970.
Galea Michael, ‘1846 – An Eventful Carnival’, Malta – More Historical
. 1970.
Ganado  Albert,’Il-Versi ta’ Richard Taylor dwar l-Inċident tal-Karnival
tal-1846′, L-Imnara, Vol 10, nru 4, ħarġa 39.
Vassallo Gian Anton, Ħrejjef u Ċiait bil-Malti, 1863.
Giahan, April 8, 1847.

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