The history behind the Maltese Festa

The colourful religious festas of Malta have always been a source of fascination, and are definitely an experience for visitors. The sharp contrast between the sombre religious celebrations and the energetic street festivities - with their bright lights, lovingly adorned churches, decorations hanging from every possible building, and more fireworks than the 4th of July - make these feasts a site to behold.

Many, many years ago, the means of communication was very limited and the festa was one of very few opportunities the villagers had to experience the occasional musical performance. In the last three days before the saint's day, the villagers would throng to their churches to hear the sermons and enjoy the village bands playing psalms.

On the eve of the festa, the Translation of the Sacred Relic would mark the start of the celebrations. This consisted of the saint's relic being carried around the church, followed by the band playing the hymn to their patron saint. The Mass - known as the panegyric - was a sermon lasting about an hour and was given by a chosen preacher, who would preach from the pulpit with the Madonna or with the titular saint.

The outdoor activities centered around a huge bonfire in the village square, creating an atmosphere of light and jollity. The streets were lined with “fjakkoli” (tins filled with lard and a lighted wick) and were placed on rooftops, windows and walls. Today however, fireworks are the preferred method of lighting, and form an essential part of the Maltese festa. These spectacles of light and sound can be seen (and heard!) from every direction - especially in the peak summer months where there are as many as three festas taking place on the same weekend!

Times have changed - and festas have changed with them - but the feasts are still very much alive, and remains a highlight in the calendars of Maltese villages.