Fireworks In Malta: A Fiery, Yet Magical World-renowned Maltese Tradition
by Tiziana Micallef
Spotting Malta and Gozo on a map might be difficult, but not when it comes to fireworks – our islands are undoubtedly showstoppers! Being very well-known for this tradition (and I dare say envied), locals and tourists come from all over to experience unique and magical displays that light up particularly the summer nights with skilled precision and great passion.
From mixing chemicals to creating cracking booms and colourful formations in the sky, fireworks in Malta and Gozo perfectly reflect the islands' loud and energetic character. Love them or hate them, the tradition of fireworks is greatly respected locally, as it requires some serious risk-taking from the volunteers who create them. And, whether at a traditional Maltese wedding, a Maltese festa or any other event throughout the year, experiencing our amazing fireworks shows is sure to create lasting memories. Keep reading to get a closer look at this beloved artistic tradition that's centuries old!
The History Of Fireworks In Malta
In order to understand the origins of fireworks in Malta, we need to turn back the hands of time to the Knights of St John's period, covering 1530-1798. They used to produce pyrotechnic displays to celebrate important events, such as the election of a new Pope or a new Grand Master, and also to rejoice in the birth of a prince. Most probably inspired by the dynamics of cannon shots and musket fire, pyrotechnics were also linked to the musketeers. Their feu de joie or celebratory rifle salute was the musketeers' way of welcoming dignitaries.
What is referred to as musketterija today, is probably an evolution of this past pyrotechnic dynamic. Nowadays, the musketterija is typically prepared on top of the church rooftop or other building and takes the form of a series of crackers attached to a string one after the other firing and creating explosions rapidly. You usually hear it on the last evening of the village festa – the moment the statue of the patron saint exits the church for the procession to start, and later when it's entering back. Having been passed on from one generation to the other, the history of fireworks in Malta seems to continue non-stop.
As the years roll, this tradition's cultural value is also getting richer and richer. Unlike some other Maltese traditions that have been desperately fighting to survive, it looks like the tradition of fireworks is here to stay and continues to evolve thanks also to the input of technology.
The Cultural Significance Of Fireworks
As mentioned earlier, there is a great cultural value attributed to fireworks. It's not just about being a reflection of Malta and Gozo's link with the past or the symbolic exuberance of the people's character. The unmeasurable cultural value of fireworks in Malta comes especially thanks to those brave volunteers who have inherited this passion from their ancestors and are continuing to keep it alive by passing it on to the present generation. In fact, it's very common to find people who are relatives of one another in one or multiple fireworks factories around the islands. Mainly linked to one village festa or the other, it's very normal to find that little bit of healthy rivalry between relatives about which fireworks factory creates the best displays!
The power of fireworks in Malta and Gozo isn't strictly linked with the village festa. One can witness fireworks throughout the whole year nowadays, with them being infiltrated in any type of important public or state event or private gathering. Whether at a wedding reception, baby gender reveal party, summer club opening or other special events, fireworks have to be part of the programme in some way or the other. And mind you, it's no longer about colourful sparkling balls in the sky. Fireworks have evolved further with different murtali tad-disinn (design fireworks) being created in any form or shape.
Fireworks Behind The Scenes
The professional enthusiasts behind the manufacturing of fireworks are purely in love with this tradition. A fireworks display lighting up the skies is the result of, mainly volunteers working together for long hours, with getting nothing in return. And if there's some revenue, it's very likely to be burnt again on fireworks.
With 35 fireworks factories scattered around the Maltese islands and an increasing number of licensees and others in the process of obtaining a licence, it looks like the fireworks tradition is far from dying out. One can argue that this tradition has transformed into an industry, and perhaps it's true. Unlike in the past, the work of the people involved is taken more seriously today, especially when it comes to safety measures. They must attend an official course and sit for a written exam. If successful, they obtain the licence to mix the chemicals. Once all documents are in place, fireworks enthusiast can free their creativity to be appreciated by the masses. With fireworks manufacturing having moved towards a more computerised process when it comes to letting them off, the modern generation is able to build on what the older generation passed on. Thus, making this Maltese tradition more creative, skilful and to a certain extent a bit safer.
We dare say that, many, despite having seen fireworks displays before, know little or nothing about the different types or techniques in the artistic tradition of fireworks. From a simple saluting boom in the sky with no colour at all to enormous ball-shaped formations, three-tier colourful circles (murtal ta' tliet crieki) or snail-like shaped fireworks (murtal bebbuxu) opening simultaneously, the creativity in this Maltese tradition is all the time keeping everyone on their toes.
And let's not forget about fireworks displays in full synchronisation with music and colourful bouquet-like creations opening in exact timing to form one gigantic ball in the sky. Or the kaxxa infernali that's literally like a minutes-long inferno of chaotic cracks, flairs, booms and colours in the sky that typically marks the end of a village festa or a peak moment during a special occasion. All these different formations in the sky require a specific technique in their making and there are many other ones to explore if you want to learn more about them.
What Maltese fireworks offer amazingly in the skies is equally offered on the ground with the giggifogu, or Catherine Wheels in English. This amazing fireworks technique happens all on the ground and it consists of huge mechanical rotational pinwheel creations that when lit up, form a show of vibrant colours swirling rapidly. The giggifogu is certainly not to be underestimated in terms of difficulty levels to manufacture – such pyrotechnics require a high level of engineering and physics to work perfectly.
The work in building and lighting up ground fireworks is truly immense and requires meticulous work to synchronise all the moving parts involved. From a digital illustration and building the pinwheel-like construction to trying out manually its movements and then finally lighting it all up with the power of a fire flash, Malta and Gozo definitely hold amazing brains in this splendour of a tradition.
Fireworks's Dark Side
As magical as can be, this Maltese tradition likes showing its evil side every now and then. The dark side of fireworks comes around whenever, unexpectedly, there is a tragic accident hitting a fireworks factory. Unfortunately, no matter how much fireworks manufacturing has evolved with stricter measures and enhanced technology for the remote burning of fireworks, accidents and tragedies still occur.
Over the years, Malta and Gozo have witnessed the loss of a number of lives who had passionately volunteered to give up their free time with their families to manufacture fireworks for others to enjoy. And although today there might still be mixed feelings about this Maltese tradition, every time there is such sad news, all of Malta and Gozo freeze. What we can do, apart from remembering those who fell while doing what they were passionate most about, is to hope that anyone involved in the making of fireworks does so safely and with great attention. Like this, both fireworks manufacturers and the mesmerised audience watching them can continue enjoying this one-of-a-kind art in the sky.
Discover more about what makes Malta & Gozo unique in our Culture section.