Traditional Maltese Festa – Qala Feast in Gozo
Festas are the highlight of the Maltese festival calendar and take place mainly during the summer months. Here are the main reasons why you should attend at least one of Malta’s traditional feasts.
As you may already know Malta has more to offer than just sun, sand and sea. Get the taste of Maltese folklore, tradition and heritage by attending one of the local feasts. These traditional festas or feasts (both terms are widely used) commemorate each town’s patron saint. For many Maltese, their town’s festa is the cultural event of the year. If you are in Malta between June and September you simply cannot escape the annual festas.
Every town celebrates at least one feast a year, making it over 80 feasts around Malta and Gozo annually. Festas are occasions for great cheerfulness expressed through enriched church decorations, liturgical functions, street illuminations, fireworks, band marches and open-air entertainment. It is also the perfect chance to mingle with the locals and experience something truly unique.
So why should you actually make the effort and visit one of the local feasts? Here are number of reasons:
Keeping the tradition alive
Cultural traditions are passed down from one generation to another. Some traditions have symbolic meanings or special significance. Cultural traditions evolve over time; some manage to survive, but others fade and die. Luckily feastas show no sign of loosing popularity, in fact, they are more popular today than ever before. According to Maltese historian PP Castagna, the tradition of the village festa goes back to the times of the Order of St John. Specifically to the time of Grandmaster De Rohan who ruled the Order between 1775 – 1797 and loved feast and merry-making.
Admire the beautiful craftsmanship
The main streets are decorated with flags, banners, paper decorations, electric lights, wooden pillars with a life-sized statues of saints and angels. On the photos above you can see wooden poles decorated with trophy banners. The wooden and open house balconies are decorated with electric bulbs as well as banners showing a portrait of the saint.
Perfect occasion to dress up
A village feast is a real outing and a good excuse to dress up. In the past (and most probably even nowadays) the whole family used to head of to Valletta (or Sliema these days) to buy new dresses, shoes and handbags. I didn’t really dress up for the occasion, but then again no one expects from you to wear the latest fashion, but if you want, you definitely can.
Amazing firework displays
There are usually three types of fireworks that you can experience during the celebrations. The first ones, rocket-type fireworks that let off a mighty bang, might shatter your morning bliss as they start as early as 8am. I’m not sure what’s the exact reason for them, but if you’re not expecting it you might literally jump out of bed with a shock!
On the photos you can see couple of wooden constructions which are actually the ground fireworks. These take place close to midnight on the eve of the feast consisting mainly of Catherine wheels. I still remember how impressed I was the first time I saw the ground fireworks in action. The ground fireworks are displayed one by one to allow the spectaculars to admire every unique construction individually.
And the third type, probably the most common ones, are the air fireworks. Malta is well known for their firework displays and spend thousands of euros each time, therefore you can be assured of a great show.
Spectacular church decorations
Malta’s religion has played a very important role in the life of the Maltese people. Hundreds of churches and chapels are located throughout the islands of Malta and Gozo. It is said that there are more than 365 churches, one of each day of the year! And they all come to live during the time of festa. The church feast helpers start planning for two months beforehand, some start even as early as one year ahead! What does this involve? First of all the church gets a good spring cleaning. All the walls are cleaned, electric bulbs are checked and all necessary maintenance is carried out.
The walls are then covered with red damask and chandeliers are hung in the arches alongside the aisle. A canopy is also placed over the main altar as you can see below.
Before the Novena (nine days of religious preparations) start, the stature of the celebrated saint is taken out of its niche and placed on a sculptured plinth. It is decorated with flowers and set of six large candlesticks.
The church based celebrations include pontifical High Masses (a mass celebrated by a bishop using certain prescribed ceremonies) accompanied by organ music in the mornings and in the evenings.
The Maltese churches are built out of big limestone blocks quarried locally. Although some of the churches might look plain on the outside from an architectural point of view, the interior, as you have seen already, is usually very rich in comparison. During the time of the feast, the church exteriors are lit by thousands of light bulbs. I personally really love this. It reminds me of Christmas but in summer! And it’s such a nice touch and really adds to the general feel of the festa.
Join the band march
On the Friday and Saturday of each festa, street celebrations take place in the evenings focused around brass band processions, sometimes led by a statue of the patron saint (I haven’t seen a statue on this occasion). It is a known fact that festas are driven rooted in rivalry. Towns often split into two factions, with each supporting one particular brass band. I’ve noticed this trend even in Qala. I was asking around to find out when exactly the brass band procession starts just to realize that there are actually two bands playing! There was a ‘red’ brass band and ‘blue’ brass band each starting from a different side of the village.
Regardless any possible tension, many people walk behind the bandmasters, dancing and singing along to the playing marches enjoying themselves to the maximum. It does get a bit over crowded especially when the band is passing by, so if you are a bit claustrophobic or you don’t like too many people, then keep your distance. You can hear the band from far away so don’t worry.
Enjoy and open air concert
Apart from the marching brass bands, you can also listen to an open air concert from the comfort of your chair from a nearby pub. Qala is one of the villages that organize a special concert in the main square situated on a grand bandstand with a majestic view of the lit up church.
Try the traditional festa sweets
Any celebrations wouldn’t be complete without some food specialties. Many sweets are sold at food stalls around the centre, with nougat being the most traditional sweet of the feast. You can also try the local imqaret (deep fried pastry with dates filling). Deep fried doughnuts are also very popular as well as fast food, which is gaining popularity in the past couple of years.
Where to go?
And which festas are the best? Well I guess that depends on everyone’s personal opinion, but I’m going to mention the three largest ones. These feasts fall on public holidays and are held in couple of separate towns and villages around the island at the same time. The first one is L-Imnarja, which commemorates St Peter and St Paul and is celebrated on the 29th June. Santa Marija marks the peak of the Maltese festa season and it falls on the 15th August. The third largest festa is Il-Vitorja, celebrating the birth of Virgin Mary, on September 8.
If you are here on the 15th August and would like to witness one of the festas, Santa Marija is celebrated in the following towns and villages: Mqabba, Qrendi, Mosta, Gudja, Attard, Ghaxaq, Victoria (Gozo), Birkirkara, and in Zebbug. Arguably the most spectacular one would be the Mosta feast, particularly because of the fact that the Rotunda of Mosta has the third largest unsupported dome in the world.
Final tips and tricks
If you are planning to visit one of the traditional Maltese feast, make sure you come early enough. We arrived to Qala about 7pm and already had to park on the outskirts of the village. Prepare yourself for many closed roads and traffic jams that will get worse later in the evening. Also remember where you parked as decorated streets look all the same!
It’s quite a challenge to obtain a programme of the particular festa you would like to visit. I had to ask my local friends as well as people who clearly participated in the feast preparations to know what’s about to happen. I also messaged the Local Council of the particular feast on Facebook (!!) to know the times of the events that take place.
It could also be an idea (maybe a little adventure too) to actually stay at the village or town that will be hosting a festa that particular week. It will be noisy, it will be loud, but you won’t miss a single thing and won’t have to fight for parking. 🙂