The Maltese Festa

Lively and colourful, festi are a much-awaited occassion in the village community's social and religious calendar.

Festi start with a bang -literally. Petards are a facet of local festi enjoyed by enthusiasts and cursed by everyone else. In parishes around the islands, a barrage marks the start, the middle and the closing of the day, and the exit and entrance of the statue of the patron saint from and to the parish church on its annual pilgrimage around the village streets. Complaints fall on deaf ears. Noise is characteristic of any celebration here. Petards are simply its manifestation.

Festi celebrations are both religious and secular, sometimes bordering on the profane. The religious aspect, for the most part, takes place within the church where a religious celebrant, usually the parish priest, directs the proceedings. There is no such direction for the secu lar celebrations that take place outside. Band clubs dedicated to the patron saint of their parish are territorial and competitive, prompting fierce, sometimes bitter, rivalry between the devotees of various saints, so fights sometimes break out with the ferocity of a petard barrage.

Village feasts are a much-awaited occasion in every parish. Front rooms are scrubbed, floors are polished and the average fa~ade often gets a new lick of paint. The neighbours will be out in full force and friends and relatives will pour in from surrounding villages, so it is in the interests of the proud housekeeper that her home appears perfect.

Inside the church, a similar frenzy of activity takes place. Walls are covered in red damask, the silverware is brought out and polished and the crystal chandeliers are cleaned to a sparkle. All year round, the statue of the parish patron saint occupies a niche in the church. In the days before the feast, it is brought out of its niche, decorated and displayed. For nine days -a full novena -the devoted pray to the saint, asking for his or her blessing and invoking year-round protection.

Out in the streets, banners are hung out, flags are raised and ropes of coloured lights are strung across the road. Traditional nougat vendors set up their stalls alongside the arriviste purveyors of hotdogs, hamburgers, pastizzi and ice cream. Healthy eating is evidently not a feature of the village feast.

A few days before the feast day, the local band club organises a march through the streets. The musicians are from allover the place, but they march under the banner of the patron saint of the day. The parade usually ends in the village square in front of the parish church, where a few fireworks are let off and several celebratory are downed. This is just part of the build-up to the big day.

The night before the feast is marked by another band march and a display of fireworks ta' l-art, grounded pyrotechnics that blaze with colour. On the feast day, the patron saint's statue is hoisted shoulder-high and paraded in a procession through the village streets, accompanied by the band, the delighted screams of children and reams of paper fluttering down from the rooftops. To carry the statue is an honour, and the bearers jealously guard their position.

Fireworks are let off at the end of the evening, lighting up the night sky to the sound of 'oohs' and 'aahs' from the crowd. They have names, too, these fireworks. "-mignunawhizzes in multiple directions as it disintegrates once airborne, tax-xokkijiet has a metallic luminescence, and the crowning glory, il-kaxxa nfernali, is an unbroken stream of coloured rockets that rounds off the display, signalling the end of the official celebrations with an ear-splitting petard barrage.

Someone once unwisely predicted the demise of the Maltese festa. Maybe in a few millennia that will happen. For now, the celebrations continue.