Carnival in Malta
Carnival is one of the oldest historical festivals in Malta, with just under five centuries of credited and documented history dating back to the Knights of St John’s occupancy in Malta. New artistic creations are born while traditions are kept alive and revived, particularly with the revival of satire, a fundamental facet to the historical Maltese Carnival.
Carnival in Malta
Carnival is an age-old tradition celebrated across the globe, with celebrations known for their colour, vibrant atmosphere and satire. Malta’s Carnival features distinct floats, masks and choreographed dances, developed from traditions passed down through history.
While the first Carnival celebrations in Malta can be traced back to the 1400s, it was only until the 1530s that the Carnival reached its peak popularity. The arrival of the Knights of Jerusalem and the reign of Grandmaster Pierino Del Ponte gave birth to ‘The Carnival Mad Days’; where for three consecutive days, nobles and cavaliers donned on the finest wigs and clothing to attend masked balls, tournaments and feasts in Birgu. The common folk celebrated their own version of Carnival, taking to the streets and dressing up in sheets, sacks, grotesque masks and colourful clothing. Eventually, these celebrations got out of hand, fuelling Grandmaster Del Ponte’s scorn. Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette later enforced laws in this regard.
During Grandmaster Giovanni Paolo Lascaris’ reign, an order was issued to ban costumes related to the devil and prevent women from wearing masks and attending balls hosted by the Knights. Failing to follow this order resulted in a public lashing. Both the Maltese and stationed Knights blamed Lascaris’ confessor, a Jesuit priest. This resulted in attacks on the Jesuit church with them being removed from Malta to keep the peace. Grandmaster Lascaris’ name found its way into the Maltese language through the expression “wiċċ laskri”, which means that someone has a long face. This was derived from the fact that Grandmaster Lascaris was never seen smiling.
Due to their increasing popularity Carnival festivities were eventually extended to a full five days, with rival celebrations taking place both in Valletta and Floriana. This rivalry brought on innovative celebrations including finely decorated horses and carriages, fireworks and the participation of the Grandmaster himself. As years went on other Carnival traditions followed suit, including Carnival floats pulled by mules, the Qarċilla, a fake satiric wedding which still takes place today, and the Kukkanja in St George’s Square Valletta, a game still popular in Gozo where participants need to climb a greasy pole while avoiding obstacles. The folk dance il-Maltija was also present during these festivities, with most attending dancing lessons after the Christmas period to prepare their dances for Carnival.
After the First World War the ‘Carnival Committee’ was established, paving the way for the Carnival we know today. The Committee set up different categories for floats, dance companies and decorated carriages, as well as regulations and prizes for the winners. The main attraction of the event was the ‘King of Carnival’ float, which is still ingrained in the Maltese Carnival tradition till this very day.
With the Carnival Committee’s involvement, this satiric celebration regained its prestige in Malta, being marked as an important part of our island’s heritage. Gozo also has its own Carnival Committee that organises the Carnival in Victoria with an emphasis on traditional Carnival practices and the spontaneous Carnival in Nadur. The Carnival now also has a summer counterpart in both Malta and Gozo which normally takes place in August.
After year-long preparations and collaborations between entities, friends and artists, all the participants come together in a celebration of unity, entertainment and creativity. The Carnival as we know it today has come a long way as it developed through time, resulting in
a grandiose event loved by all. Like we say in Maltese: “Viva Viva l-Karnival!”