Carnival Malta & Gozo – History & Traditions

If it wasn’t for the pandemic, this weekend we would be looking forward to the traditional Carnival celebrations! Dozens of marching bands, colourful floats, stunning costumes and thousands of people! Unfortunately, this year’s celebrations have been canceled due to Covid-19. Here is a little throwback.

carmival malta 2021


Carnival has a long history in Malta. It is an age-old tradition celebrated across the globe. The first Carnival celebrations in Malta can be traced back to the 1400s. Carnival festivities increased during the times of the Order and it was during the 1530s when the Carnival reached its peak popularity.

During this period the traditional ‘Parata’ – the sword-dance making the victory of the Maltese and the Knights against the Turks in 1565 – was introduced. This traditional dance custom survived till this day. This dance is an important part of the carnival. There is even a popular saying among the Maltese peasants: “No Parata no Carnival!”

The arrival of the Knights and the reign of Grandmaster Pierino Del Ponte gave birth to ‘The Carnival Mad Days’; where for three consecutive days, nobles and cavaliers put on the finest wigs and clothing to attend masked balls, tournaments and feasts in Birgu.

carnival malta 2021

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 and Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette had to enforce laws in this regard. However it seems that ‘The Carnival Mad Days’ are surviving till this very day in the Gozitan village of Nadur! 🙂

During the Order’s rule the kukkanja or coccagna was introduced. This basically means that a tall truck of a tree was placed against a wall and all sorts of food were tied to its small branches. Anyone was allowed to try and run or climb the truck to pick the items of food. The lucky ones were allowed to take them home. This game is supposedly still popular in Gozo.

The Carnival continued to flourish even during the British rule. During this period the Veljuni, a masked ball, was held in major theatres in Valletta.

After the First World War, some sources say since 1926, the ‘Carnival Committee’ was established, paving the way for the Carnival we know today. The outdoor Carnival festivities in Valletta started to include a défilé of floats, dance competitions, carts and cabs featuring imaginative figures full of colour and of course the ‘King of Carnival’ float.

carmival malta 2021

In former days, Carnival floats contained some elements of political satire. At one point, these were banned as sometimes, public figures were offended. However this tradition was revived in 2014 and nowadays it seems like there is nothing but members of parliament represented in a satirical manner on the Carnival floats. Don’t you think?

Due to their increasing popularity Carnival festivities were eventually extended from original three-day celebrations to a full five days, with rival celebrations taking place both in Valletta and Floriana.

carmival malta 2021


Unfortunately Carnival is not always about dressing up and having fun. Did you know that this time 200 years ago there was a tragedy during Carnival celebrations in which 110 children were crushed to death in a Valletta convent?! I read about this awful tragedy recently in a TVM article.

The fatal day was 11th February, 1823, when during the Carnival time 110 children aged between eight years and 15 lost their lives. They gathered in the Valletta church hoping to be fed bread. The children assembled at the convent to distance themselves from the Carnival manifestation. Unfortunately the children met with the end of celebrations and they came up against the homeward bound crowds and were caught in the middle. Becoming the victims of a riot. How sad is that? It gives me shivers every time I read it.


Talking about Carnival traditions I have to mention the Qarċilla, a fake satiric wedding which still takes place today. It is a comedy that is acted out in public. A ‘notary’ reads out a marriage agreement between the engaged couple and the contract is full of jokes and satirical comments. Tris tradition originated around the year 1760, however it came to an end about a century ago due to the trouble it caused. However, it was revived in 2014.

Carnival traditions wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the traditional sweets. The post popular one is called ‘prinjolata’, which is the Maltese name for a colourful mound of local carnival cake. The name ‘prinjolata’ comes from the word ‘prinjol’ which means pine nuts in Maltese. Also, let’s not forget ‘perlini’ the sugared almonds.

malta carnival sweets

Summer Carnival

I’m sure you know, but just in case you’ve missed it, there is also Malta Summer Carnival. It takes place in the Bugibba and Qawra coastal areas. It’s not as big as the main Carnival in February. There are about 10 to 15 floats and several dance companies taking part. The Carnival activities are usually spread over two days and on Saturday, a défilé is organised from the St Paul’s Bay (the jetty) to Qawra square.


It wouldn’t be right to talk about Carnival festivities and not mention the village of Nadur in Gozo. There are actually two separate parties – the family-friendly carnival, which is done in more organised matter, and the spontaneous mischievous one. It is not for everyone, but it’s definitely an experience. Expect the unexpected. It is the time, when locals go wild and the only ‘rule’ is that your costume should disguise who you are. For obvious reasons I would say! Haha!

Nadur is also the place where you can witness the traditional ‘kukkanja’, which I already mentioned earlier on.


There are usually numerous events taking place during the Carnival five days celebrations. Unfortunately this year they have all been cancelled. Let’s hope 2022 everything will be back to ‘normal’ and we can again enjoy such celebrations. In the meantime, stay safe.