Malta Christmas Crib © Pixabay
It wouldn’t be Christmas without a few festive traditions, would it? The nativity scene a distinctive feature in Catholic countries. Some places go all out with these, including a vast menagerie of animals and a whole cast of characters painstakingly placed upon an impressively sprawling miniature landscape. There are also dynamic nativity scenes and ‘living’ nativity scenes, but no country does a Christmas crib quite like the Maltese. And that’s not the only tradition on the archipelago. Here’s how they celebrate the festive season in Malta.
Presepju is Maltese for crib, also meaning nativity scene and the first creations were imported from Naples and Sicily in the early 17th century and set up by local Dominican friars. The locals didn’t like them initially and rumour has it that the Maltese burned the nativity scenes as firewood. It wasn’t long before the tradition stuck, however. And soon the cribs started to take on their own uniquely Maltese appearance. The presepju, like other nativity scenes, features Jesus in his manger, with Mary and Joseph close by, but it also includes the caves, hills and flour windmills of the Maltese landscape. What’s more, the models themselves, or pasturi (derived from the Italian word pastore, meaning shepherd), are hand-crafted from clay and painted by local artisans.
Many Maltese nativity scenes now have mechanical moving parts and have grown ever-more elaborate. These scenes are in-fact a year-round phenomenon. Many families have a crib in their home, and most churches contain one, too. There is even a permanent installation at the National Museum of Ethnography inside the Inquisitor’s Palace. In December, the Friends of the Crib Society stages a major exhibition, which features an incredible collection of around 100 Maltese cribs, created using a variety of materials, including papier-maché, polystyrene and cork.
If you visit Malta at Christmas you won’t fail to notice the gulbiena, or vetches—noodle-like shoots that are cultivated entirely for decorative purposes. Maltese tradition holds that it’s best to plant the gulbiena in the first week of December, so it looks its best on Christmas Day, when it’s brought out of its container and displayed in the house.
The uniquely Maltese crib and the gulbiena are not the only interesting things on the island’s list of festive traditions. Imbuljuta tal-Qastan, which is served after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, is a rich ‘soup’ of cocoa, chestnuts, cloves and citrus zest. During the Mass itself, it’s traditional for local children aged seven – to give the ‘Sermon of the Child’. Then there’s the Christmas Eve Procession, complete with a life-sized statue of the infant Jesus. It’s safe to say that a Maltese Christmas is a Christmas unlike any other.