Carnival in Malta has a long history. The word itself originates from the Italian phrase ‘carne vale’, which means ‘meat is allowed’, since Carnival itself is usually celebrated before the start of Lent, during which meat consumption was not permitted by the Catholic church.
Although the origins of Carnival themselves have pagan roots, tracing back to the follies of the Roman Saturnalia and beyond, we first find actual traces of it in the Maltese islands as of the 1400s, as records were found at the general hospital which indicate that patients were given special meals for this festivity. Food and drink in fact are an important aspect of Carnival, as is the wearing of masks and costumes, signifying the suspension of the normal order of things where social class was all-defining. During Carnival, everyone could make merry. It was a time for jokes, laughter and pranks.
Carnival festivities increased during the time of the Order of Saint John, and the traditional ‘parata’, the sword-dance marking the victory of the Maltese and the Knights against the Turks during the siege of 1565, was introduced. The ‘kukkanja’ was also introduced at this time, this was a sort of game whereby all sorts of food and sweets were tied to a tree-trunk, and the general public was allowed to run and climb the trunk to pick items of food as presents.
Carnival started to decline during the 19th century when the British governed the islands, as it was not part of British culture, however it still managed to survive. ‘Veljuni’ or masked balls were held in major theatres around Valletta, and even the British governor used to take part in the revelry. When Malta was granted the Constitution in 1921, Carnival evolved even further. Since 1926, outdoor Carnival festivities started being organised in Valletta by special committee. Carnival started to include a défilé of floats, carts and cabs featuring imaginary colourful figures, manned by young people in costume who would blow whistles, throw coloured confetti, sound horns and jeer at the crowd while wearing beautifully crafted costumes. Shops or organisations sponsored these floats and they used the event also as an advertisement for their products. In fact, carnival boosts business since street hawkers, vendors and shopkeepers, not to mention bakers, start to plan for it well in advance.
Up to 1974, a part of Valletta’s main square was fenced to create an enclosure which offered space for dancing. Later, the enclosure was relocated to Freedom Square, however when this was closed for the building of Parliament, the enclosure was taken back to Saint George Square.
Many people could be seen masquerading through the streets as of pre-war days. Some dressed up as ghosts, demons, clowns and fairies, while others simply wore masks. The Maltese Carnival always contained an element of political satire. Grotesquely costume masquers, not to mention floats or ‘karrijiet’ which derided and caricatured particular events and prominent figures, were and are plentiful during this time. The making of the floats themselves is an important part of Maltese culture, often handed down from father to son. Whole families, friends and acquaintances spend months preparing their floats, aiming at taking part in one of the Carnival processions around Malta or Gozo.
At present, Carnival is celebrated in most towns and villages around Malta and Gozo, and is a yearly event which many look forward to, be they young or old, locals or tourists. It is an occasion to have fun, let one’s hair down, and celebrate together.