All about Easter in Malta and Gozo
by Mr Yellow
A Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Easter in Malta is every bit religious, rich in tradition, history and emotions. From processions parading chained hooded men carrying crosses to re-enactments of the Passion and brass bands playing solemn music throughout the week, Easter is a big affair locally.
Yet, there’s more to it than just churches and whether you’re religious or not, the various events that take place in the run-up to Easter Sunday are fascinating enough for you to watch or even participate in. This coupled with the warm, inviting weather and good food makes the island the ideal place to enjoy this feast to the fullest. Below we have listed some of the highlights you should keep in mind.
A rundown of the Holy Week’s activities
Officially the Easter period begins on Palm Sunday, however, the festivities truly kick off during the Holy Week which comes to an end with what is known as the Easter Triduum - Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. From pageants, plays and re-enactment to exhibitions and concerts, each day offers its unique take on the festivities, so keep your eyes peeled for what’s happening.
A day prior to Good Friday, Maundy Thursday is a solemn occasion which commemorates the Last Supper. In fact, churches create model scale representations of this event, as well as those of the Easter story. Ranging from models to elaborate salt, rice or pasta displays, these are a laborious undertaking created by volunteers. What’s more, the food used in these displays is then distributed among the needy of the parish.
However, the day is also known for the highly popular tradition of the Seven Visits (Seba Visti), where locals visit seven churches in different localities to pay homage to the Altars of Repose which are adorned with white flowers and where special prayers are said in each one. A tradition dating back to the Ancient Romans, during the mass service the priest washes the feet of twelve individuals who represent the apostles.
Another interesting thing about this day is that churches replace their bells with a wooden gong known as cuqqlajta which is used until Saturday as a sign of mourning.
Where to go: To fully appreciate one of the most stunningly decorated altars, the Three Cities, namely Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea, are your best bet, while in order to experience Maundy Thursday in all its glory, we recommend Valletta. Another must is the procession held at Girgenti. This torchlit event begins in the early evening at the village core of Siggiewi and ends once pilgrims reach the summit at Laferla Cross.
On the other hand, if trotting around the island for the Seven Visits feels more of a daunting feat rather than a fun, cultural evening out, then make sure you visit Rabat, which offers seven churches in a single locality.
Good Friday commemorates the Passion of Christ and emits a particularly sombre and solemn feel to it as churches do not sport their typical ornamental decor, while no bells are rung. In fact, these are dressed in purple and black only to be changed into red on Easter Sunday. It is also a public holiday so expect most businesses to have their doors closed. Typical events of the day begin with a special afternoon service, followed by the traditional Good Friday procession where the streets of towns and villages double as open-air theatres.
Dating back to the 16th century when the Maltese adopted Spanish and Sicilian traditions, these processions feature statues carried by bearers dressed in costumes depicting biblical characters, strolling along to the monotonous beats of funeral marches played by brass bands. Processions are a big affair and with each statue weighing several kilos, around 6 to 8 men are needed to carry each one. As a result, participants in these re-enactments number the hundreds and include men, women and children. Some are even dressed as Roman soldiers, often seen on horseback or in chariots.
Where to go: Mosta, Qormi, Zejtun and Zebbug are well-known for their notable Good Friday processions with that of Zebbug in particular lauded for its extravagance and for utilising horses. Ever so popular, there will be loads to see so make sure you beat the crowds and have a good vantage point by arriving at your preferred town or village ahead of time. Alternatively, if you’re planning to spend Easter in Gozo, make sure you visit Xaghra.
Carrying on the same mood and atmosphere of the previous day, Holy Saturday remains pretty much this way until the evening. Then comes the special celebration of the Rising of Christ which sees a number of locals and tourists flocking the squares of churches. As the celebration begins, all lights are switched off and churches are in total darkness, however, as the evening proceeds, these are relit slowly until every bulb and chandelier is on.
Where to go: If you’re tired of the week’s religious activities and you’d like to enjoy the beautiful weather instead, spend the day by the coastline or countryside, while sampling some lenten picnic snacks. Here are 7 picnic sports in the Maltese islands.
Easter Sunday brings a breath of fresh air from the bleak atmosphere of the past few days so expect to be awakened in the morning by the ringing of the church bells announcing the Resurrection of Christ. With this celebratory and joyful mood permeating every nook and cranny of the country, brass bands ditch their funeral processional music and opt instead for more festive and up-tempo tunes.
A must-see event during Easter Sunday is the Risen Christ’s annual run home that brings the mid-morning procession to a close, known in Maltese as Irxoxt. The statue is carried high upon parishioners’ shoulders, yet what makes this activity unique is the fact that the way is cleared and the statue-bearers make a run back to the church, statue in tow. The crowds cheer and applaud and some onlookers throw paper confetti from their balconies and windows. Children join the procession holding their figollas in order for them to be blessed. This traditional Maltese pastry is filled with almonds and covered with icing sugar, typically shaped in Easter-themed symbols such as a rabbit, lamb or fish. Have a look at this easy recipe to make your very own figolla.
Following this spectacle, locals spend the remaining of the day with their family, whereby a big meal of lamb baked with roasted onions, garlic and rosemary served with roast potatoes and seasonal veg is traditionally enjoyed and when chocolate eggs, figolli and small presents are exchanged. If you’d like to give Sunday lunch a go and prepare the meal from scratch have a look at this scrumptious recipe for the perfect Easter Sunday meal.
Where to go: The ideal locales for experiencing the Irxoxt first hand are those held in the harbour towns of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua. Steeped in tradition, the procession at the latter town dates back to the mid-18th century when a sailor by the name of Celestinu Sacco brought the statue over from Spain. Venerated to this day, it had a lucky escape back in 2013 when a bearer tripped and fell over. The statue tilted on one side, narrowly escaping the ground.
Easter food you must indulge in
Easter in Malta and Gozo is not all doom and gloom and part of the celebrations involve digging into the variety of delicious food available. Strongly associated with a number of delicacies, savoury options include the kusksu, a soup that is usually consumed as a starter to a meal. Consisting of broad beans, peas and kusksu, a traditional type of pasta found in many North African countries, the dish is taken up a notch if you add some Gozitan cheeselets known as gbejniet. The ultimate staple, bread is found on virtually every Maltese table and during this festive period, a special unleavened loaf called qaghaq tal-Appostoli is produced. Soft, ring-shaped and garnished with sesame seeds and roasted almonds, don’t be fooled by its simplicity - the bread is deceptively mouth-watering.
Would you rather stick to sweet treats? Then feast on a bunch of zeppolis, a pastry that originates from Sicily, Rome, Sardinia and Naples, topped with powdered sugar and filled with custard, cannoli-style cream or a butter and honey mixture. Alternatively, kwarezimal is perfect for vegans since it does not contain any dairy, eggs or other animal products. This typical spicy, chewy, orange-flower flavoured Lenten biscuit is the ideal ‘cheat sweet’ locals tend to overindulge in without breaking the rules. On the other hand, highlighting the island’s British influence, hot cross buns are also very popular this time of year, so make sure you enjoy them piping hot with generous lashings of butter. Last but not least, no Easter is the same without a good figolla.
Whether you’d like to sample some of these sweets as a snack to ward off hunger or enjoy them after a good dinner, you’re surely set to find an abundance of these at bakeries or confectionery and sweet shops listed on Yellow.
Some fun facts about Easter from around the world you may not have known
- It is believed that the word Easter originated from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre or Eastre who was closely linked to springtime celebrations and fertility. And what’s more interesting is the fact that her sacred symbols were believed to have been hares and eggs.
- Many Easter traditions do not have Christian or any religious roots for that matter. For instance, there is evidence that suggests that the symbolic use of eggs dates back to the Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Romans and Greeks, while the tradition of giving eggs, which symbolises new life, fertility and rebirth in numerous cultures was not initiated by Christians. Having said that, nowadays, eggs are dyed to represent the blood of Jesus Christ.
- Speaking about eggs, the UK’s first chocolate egg was produced in 1873 by Fry’s of London, whereas the largest chocolate egg ever produced was in Italy in 2011. Standing at 10 metres height and weighing 7,200kg, it was taller than a giraffe and heavier than the average elephant.
- We can thank Germany for the Easter bunny who made it popular during the Middle Ages. The first story of a rabbit which went on to eventually become the Easter bunny hiding eggs in a garden was published in 1680. In many households, this character is known for delivering candy and chocolate eggs to children on Easter Sunday morning.
- The white lily is the official flower of Easter, so much so that they have often been dubbed Easter lilies. Representing grace and purity, it is the flower of choice in most churches and households.
- Did you know that Easter is celebrated at different times by Eastern and Western Christians? Wondering why that’s the case? In Eastern Christianity, the Julian Calendar is used and as a result, Easter Sunday varies by a week or so from that celebrated by Western Christians.
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