Visit Malta in February and you may well experience Carnival, a traditional celebration hosted in the capital city of Valletta and throughout the Maltese islands.
With extravagantly decorated floats in parades, revellers wearing fancy dress costumes, and a week of merrymaking, Malta’s Carnival is an event like no other.
But beyond the partying, here’s 10 facts you may not know about this most outrageous of Maltese traditions.
It predates the famous Great Siege of 1565 (by a long way)
Although Malta’s Carnival was officially introduced to the islands by Grand Master Piero de Ponte in 1535, there is evidence of Carnival dating back a lot further than that. The Carnival is today understood to be the merrymaking and feasting period before the beginning of Lent, but it pre-dates Christianity in early pagan forms. There are also records of Carnival-like celebrations being held in ancient Babylon, Egypt and Rome.
The Knights of St John celebrated too
Malta’s first (official) Carnival took place in the then-capital city of Birgu in 1535, when celebrations consisted mainly of the Knights of St John proving their skills in various tournaments and pageants. Grand Master Piero de Ponte restricted the knights’ wild merrymaking however, and only approved of tournaments or military exercises that were deemed useful in training the knights for battle against the Turks.
Jean de la Valette disapproved of mask-wearing
Ironically, the man responsible for building Malta’s capital city Valletta, the home of the modern-day mask-wearing carnival, was not a fan of people wearing masks. Forbidden for the rest of the year, in 1560 Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette had allowed the public wearing of masks for Carnival alone. He was unimpressed however at the effect this had, inspiring new heights of revelry in the local community, and he later reprimanded his knights for taking the festivities too far aboard their ships.
Carnival has its own game
In 1721, a new tradition was added to Malta’s carnival celebrations, in the form of the game of ‘kukkanja’. Grand Master Marc’ Antonio Zondadari introduced the game, where crowds would descend on a collection of hams, sausages and live animals hidden beneath leafy branches outside the guard house on Palace Square. Any provisions then would become the property of whomever was lucky enough to seize them. These days, the game has evolved to include a greased pole that competitors must scale to win the prizes.
Things got political
During the British period in Malta in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the floats included in the carnival parades took on increasingly satirical themes. Poking fun at political figures and unpopular government decisions, the biting caricatures led the government to pass a law in 1936 banning political satire from all future Carnival celebrations, which was only repealed in 2013.
Nadur Carnival is different… very different
The village of Nadur in Gozo is famous for having a particularly unique interpretation of Carnival. Notable for its darker and more macabre themes, visit Nadur during Carnival week and you’ll join masked revellers wearing ghost costumes, cross-dressing, or emulating political figures or clergymen. Unhindered by the regulations and organising committees that restrict Malta’s Carnival, the Nadur Carnival is a grotesque novelty to behold.
Carnival could even suspend justice
In the early days of Carnival celebrations, a stone would be hung from the ‘Castellania’, or Palace of Justice – now the Ministry of Health – that would signal that justice would be ‘suspended’ for the three days of Carnival festivities in Malta. Today, any such sign displayed is considered purely ceremonial.
The Parata kicks off the festivities
Carnival has been ushered in by ‘Il-Parata’ since the time of the knights. Held in special significance by the people, the Parata would involve young dancers gathering to receive formal permission from the Grand Masters to start the Carnival, before a mock battle recalling the Great Siege of 1565, and a child bearing a flag through the streets of Valletta.
Carnival food is a big deal
Since Carnival week falls just before the austerity of Lent, it has always included a healthy amount of feasting in the celebrations. In fact, the name ‘Carnival’ originates from the Italian phrase ‘Carne vale’, which translates to ‘meat is allowed’, due to meat consumption not being permissible during Lent. Carnival has also inspired traditional sweets, including sugar-coated almonds known as ‘perlini’, and the ‘prinjolata’ – a sponge cake packed with biscuits, almonds, citrus fruits, cream and pine nuts.
The Carnival has a King
Malta’s Carnival celebrations would be incomplete without the massive parade of hand-decorated floats that process through the capital. And this parade has an essential Maltese tradition to continue, in the form of King Carnival. ‘Ir-Re tal-Karnival’ in Maltese, the King Carnival float leads the rest of the parade, and is supposed to be the best and most beautiful of them all.
Want to learn more about Maltese culture and traditions? Check out our History Behind the Maltese Flag or 6 Things the British and Maltese Have in Common