This column first appeared in Malta Today
Some love them, others hate them with a passion, but if anyone had any doubts as to whether the long-held tradition of the village feast is in any danger of dying out, you have probably been living under a rock this summer.
Those new to the island are often baffled, bewildered and even terrified by the loud bangs of petards and fireworks going off at any time of the day…not to mention the cacophony of noise otherwise known as the band March. When streets are closed off and main arterial roads are blocked ‘because of the festa’ it can be highly infuriating and exasperating for those who haven’t lived here long (the locals also grumble but have surrendered to the inevitable; “What can you do?” we ask each other rhetorically).
Every summer there are the invariable questions about why there has to be so much noise, chaos and mayhem in honour of a statue depicting the patron saint – but while I can sympathise, on the other I also silently wonder if these people who relocate here have ever done any actual research about the island. I cannot imagine myself going to live somewhere completely different without finding out as much as I can about what it is like to become a resident. Once I do emigrate, it would also never occur to me to constantly moan about the culture/traditions, expecting them to be stopped or changed for my benefit. It is a rather high-handed and arrogant approach to being an ex-pat, if you ask me.
Of course, this does not mean that all Maltese people are fond of such traditions. I, for one, am not a big festa fan, which is why I would never live smack in the heart of the village core where you cannot escape any of it. It’s there in your face and on your doorstep, whether you enjoy it for not. You either have to grin and bear it or flee to another part of the island (or go abroad) until it’s all over. Occasionally, however, we do venture down to our local festa in Mosta, and this year was one of those times, especially after a two year absence.
Santa Maria is always a grand feast, but this year it went above and beyond, probably because everyone was just so happy to be able to socialise and mingle like it was 2019. I saw the stats of how many crossed over to Gozo for the long weekend, but you would not have known it from the sheer numbers which congregated to the famous Rotunda. The majestic Church was in full splendour, as was the square and the main roads and il-Mostin were out in droves from every corner of this relatively large town.
As we sipped our wine and watched the crowds mill past us, it was like taking a sociological snapshot of the community. Grandparents smiling proudly as they held hands with their grandchildren without having to worry about social distancing, which now seems like a distant memory. And prams and pushchairs? I have never seen so many in one place, and it occurred to me that most of these were “Covid babies” who were conceived over these last two years. There were so many young families, parents to the future generation, some of whom were introducing their excited children for the first time to the time-honoured tradition of the local festa.
The fashion, too, was an eclectic, fascinating mixture. Some mothers were dressed to the nines in new dresses, tottering on their high heels while others were dressed more casually, and wore flats. The men, always more practical, invariably opted for comfortable, casual wear even if their other half was wearing a fancy cocktail dress. An occasional large beer belly passed by with some prominent brand name like “Calvin Klein” stretched across the T-shirt.
There were the gaggles of pre-teens, probably being allowed to roam alone by themselves for the first time, some of the girls already self-assured and strutting, some of the boys trying out their first swagger. Others held back, shy and insecure, but allowing themselves to be swept along by their more confident peers. It was like watching a parade of the generations, a parade as old as time, and not really that different from the festas of my youth when it was an occasion for everyone to meet up, including those who had moved to another town. But one’s home town is always one home town and the festa always brings them back. The adults were there greeting old friends and relatives and the young were eying each other out, on the prowl and flirting. Festas will never die, and proof of this were the numerous very attractive girls wearing T-shirts with the name of the band club emblazoned on it, in their cut-off jeans and sneakers. Unlike in the past, from what I could see, today it has become cool to be part of the festa culture.
This year, post-Covid, the atmosphere felt electric and heightened (or maybe it just seemed like that because I haven’t been in such crowds for a while). Everything seemed to be turned up a notch; after too many months of being afraid of an invisible virus, we could relax and enjoy ourselves. It could be seen in the warm embraces of those who had not seen each other in so long, and the touching sight of the very frail and elderly, who managed to see their beloved Mosta Dome in all its glory and feel that they were part of the community once again.
Juxtaposed against the locals were the obvious tourists, gazing at the sights and sounds with unabashed curiosity and amazement, perhaps trying to understand what it was all about. Seen from their perspective, I can appreciate how it must all look. The shouts of “Dieħla! Dieħla!” (It’s going inside) as the statue of Our Lady was brought back to its niche amidst applause and more fireworks must have been intriguing to them. The Maltese festa has always been a place where the religious meets the profane, and this year that fusion was even more bizarre. An area behind the church was allocated to every type of imaginable food truck, selling everything from American-style burgers to Turkish kebabs. The hygiene standards were questionable (I saw stacks of ready-made burgers and wondered how long they had been there), but the trucks were doing a roaring trade because they were cheap and cheerful options. Likewise, every snack bar and restaurant was packed to the gills, with temporary permits allowing them to sprawl their tables and chairs as far as possible. It was like the Santa Maria convoy which delivered food to the island during the war was being commemorated right there and then: “We went hungry once but, by God, we will not go hungry ever again.”
Another area was set up as a mini-flea market, with trucks selling all sorts of plastic toys. I felt sorry for any parent having to walk through all that merchandise without being coerced by pleading children into buying them a toy.
So while it is nice to see the centuries’ old traditions being upheld, it is also true that the modern day festa has become far too commercialised, far too gaudy, and far too much of a money-making opportunity. Women with plunging necklines resting their aching feet by sprawling on the steps of the magnificent Dome as they talked and laughed much too loudly, made a stark contrast to the more respectful older people who passed by them with pursed, disapproving lips, who were entering the church to pray and worship. As with the closure of the streets, we have to shrug and say, “what can you do?” You cannot force people to be religious even though they were paradoxically there to celebrate a religious feast.
The mercenary aspect is also hard to reign in (although my suspicion is that this year the authorities closed an eye to allow business people to make up for the last two years). However, there does need to be more control, and a less laissez-faire attitude in general, not just with festas but with any large-scale event which draws the crowds. Money cannot and should not always be our god, and the fact that it is our god even as a sacred statue is being worshipped in the name of our faith, is just too ironic.