Colourful, vibrant and merry, the numerous village festas that pepper Gozo’s rich cultural calendar are unmissable. But how many are there? What do they celebrate exactly? And what are the sounds, scents and tastes you should look out for?
The Maltese Islands have a long Christian tradition. In fact, it dates all the way back to AD 60; to when the ship that was taking the apostle St Paul to Rome was shipwrecked just off our coast.
His legendary voyage, still marked by the Church at large on a yearly basis, saw Malta gain its first saint in Publius, our Roman governor at the time. From then on, the cult of the saints in Malta was forged, and our national and religious calendars – which, for centuries, were one and the same – marked these saints’ lives, martyrdom, and piety.
“Our first record of a religious festa is that of Santa Marija in the 14th century,” explains Anton F Attard, a festa enthusiast. “This was mentioned because it marked the end of many leases and contracts for Gozitans at the time, and the villagers were expected to pay what was due to their landowners on that very day.”
Official documents aside, it is widely believed that the Marian cult in Malta is one of the oldest, and that, therefore, the Festa of Santa Marija in Gozo had been celebrated for many years before it was first mentioned in writing.
Now, 700 years after that document was created, Gozo’s religious and social calendars are dotted with many festas dedicated to saints, including those devoted to Santa Marija.
“Today there are more than 28 festas celebrated by the Island’s 14 different parishes,” Anton continues. “This is because each parish has at least one titular feast to commemorate its patron saint, and then one or more secondary festas.”
The biggest, best-known and most attended of these feasts are normally those of ‘Il-Vittorja’ (the Birth of the Virgin Mary) celebrated in Xaghra, ‘l-Imnarja’ (the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul) observed on 29 June in Nadur, and that of St John the Baptist celebrated in Xewkija.
“Rabat also has two major, titular feasts,” Anton tells us. “Santa Marija, which is celebrated on 15 August, and San Gorg, observed on the third Sunday of July.”
With village festas being part of our collective calendar for centuries, it is no surprise that each village has many age-old traditions associated with their feast. What’s even more special is that these traditions are still carried out as they would have when they were first devised.
“My favourite festa is that of Santa Marija, but that’s not wholly objective as I’m from Rabat,” jokes Anton. “Subjectively speaking, however, it is one of the more special ones, as it is celebrated at Gozo’s Cathedral by the Bishop of Gozo himself.”
These village festas are not all about religion, however. They are also meant to be a time when the villagers come together to celebrate and give thanks for another year’s harvest, as well as to showcase visitors the fruit of their labour.
“Aside from the religious aspect of the Santa Marija feast, which includes a procession with the statue of the Virgin Mary, there are many other activities that showcase Gozo’s rich history and agriculture,” explains Anton.
“One of the most renowned is a race by the villagers’ livestock, which takes place on Triq ir-Repubblika. This is an old tradition dating back to the time of the Knights of Malta, and it is observed by many villages in Gozo. In fact, it is deemed so important in our cultural calendar, that funds are raised throughout the year to ensure it takes place as planned.
“And it doesn’t stop there. During the Santa Marija feast we also have an agricultural and industrial show at Villa Rendell, an incredible showcase of fireworks by Assocjazzjoni Vampa, as well as many stalls selling traditional or fast foods and sweets,” says Anton. “There’s so much to see and do, it really is a treat for the senses.”
The Scents, Sounds & Tastes
The beauty of Gozo and Malta’s festas definitely lies in their multisensory-approach to celebrating their saint of choice.
From the colourful fireworks at night to the bomb-like, colourless fireworks in the morning, and the brass bands that take to the streets to the clitter and clatter of the busy village, your ears will be assaulted by a wonderful cacophony of sound.
Meanwhile, your eyes will feast on a rainbow of colour as the streets are draped in scarlet damask, statues glitter with gold and confetti fly out of every window and balcony.
It’s also important to come ready to dig into some delicious specialities, which include our renowned nougat, sold from wooden stalls that have been passed down through the generations.
“Gozitan traditions really do come to life during our village festas, and I think visitors will be pleasantly surprised by just how much these celebrations have to offer,” Anton concludes. “It will give them to chance to see Gozo in a completely new light!”