Christmas is traditionally the time of year for leaving gifts under the tree and feasting, surrounded by your family and friends. However, there are other seasonal customs that are unique to Malta and Gozo, and they all make a festive holiday on the islands that extra bit magical.
Visit the Nativity Scenes and Cribs
Come Christmas-time, Malta’s countless churches will each display ‘presepju’, nativity cribs built by the congregation. These vary in size and style, from simple hand-painted figurines known as ‘pasturi’, to life-size mechanical figures that can move. Tradition has it that the three figures of the Magi – or wise men – are added at the feast of the epiphany, and the figure of the baby Jesus is moved to the main altar at midnight on Christmas night.
Maltese homes will often also have a crib of their own, which, depending on the size and structure, may be built with locally-sourced stones known as ‘gagazza’. The figures included also vary, such as the Holy Family, the Magi, the shepherds with their sheep, plus a baker, a bagpipe player, folk singers, angels, fishermen, drum players, and the village simpleton known in Maltese as ‘L-Għaġeb tal-Presepju’.
Join a Festive Procession
In 1921 in Hamrun a crowd sang carols and walked with lanterns, carrying a life-size figure of the baby Jesus in front of them. The tradition of a Christmas Eve procession has been maintained ever since, taking place either at sunset or following midnight mass. Each village will have their own traditions and activities, so keep an eye out on social media or just go exploring around Christmas time and you could come across some hidden gems.
Spot the Ġulbiena
Local cribs are widely embellished with another uniquely Maltese feature, the vetches or ‘ġulbiena’. These are long white grass-like shoots that are grown from wheat, grain or canary seeds on cotton wool in flat pans, in the five weeks before Christmas.
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The pans with the full-grown shoots are then used to decorate the crib or a larger figure of the baby Jesus.
Go to Midnight Mass
The largely Catholic population of Malta and Gozo tend to go to a midnight mass service on Christmas Eve, which also has its own customs.
The most well-known of these is the ‘Sermon of the Child’, or ‘Priedka tat-Tifel’, where a boy or girl aged from 7 to 10 will preach the sermon at midnight mass instead of the priest. This hugely-anticipated sermon will have been learned and practiced in advance by the child, and usually tells the story of the birth of Jesus.
The mass sometimes also includes a mini-pageant, where children dress up as the shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and act out the nativity story.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
The Maltese enjoy a wide range of traditional food at Christmas, featuring both local delicacies as well as European influences.
Historically, the fattest rooster would be saved for Christmas Day lunch, and it would be roasted at the local bakery in a casserole dish full of potatoes and vegetables.
The years of British rule in the country however inspired the popularity of the turkey roast dinner instead, as well as fruit cake, Christmas pudding and mince pies. The Italian sponge cake ‘pannetone’ is also a local favourite as seasonal gifts between friends and family.
The widespread tradition of attending midnight mass has also given way to the custom of having an early and plentiful breakfast immediately afterwards, often as a Christmas treat away from home at luxury venues such as the Radisson Blu St Julian’s.
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To learn more about festive activities and menus at the Radisson Blu Resort, St. Julian’s, click here.