The Maltese Parish Festa
In every locality around Malta and Gozo, a parish feast (‘festa’) for the local Patron Saint is organised at least once each year. Some localities have not one, but two patron saints, resulting in two annual feasts, usually between two different groups of people living inside the particular parish. The rivalry between the two groups is usually manifest through the programme of festivities organised by the band clubs and confraternities belonging to each parish, where these vie with each other in competition for the best feast, loudest fireworks, and most original and commemorating events.
Feasts are occasions of rejoicing. This is further expressed through the enriched church decorations, liturgical and family functions, street illuminations, fireworks, and open-air entertainment. Some feasts even have their own particular traditions, such as the water regatta held during the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity in Isla, that is, Senglea.
The majority of localities organise their Parish Feasts between April and September, although there are some exceptions. This period of time is referred by the locals as the ‘festa season’.
Feast celebrations can be said to fall into two categories; those held inside the church and those held in the streets, squares and band clubs of the parish. Church feast helpers start planning from months before the actual event. The walls of the Church are covered in red damask, chandeliers are hung in the arches, and a canopy is placed over the main altar. The statue of the Saint is taken out of its niche and placed on a sculptured box-shaped plinth, decorated with candles and flowers.
The ‘Novena’ is a period of nine days of special liturgical functions involving sacred music. This ends three days before the feast day. These last three days are called the ‘Tridu’ and special prayers and singing concerts are held during this period.
On the feast day itself, several masses take place inside the Church. In the evening, the procession with the Saint’s statue takes place. The Statue is taken around all the streets and squares of the locality. A week after the feast, the Statue re-enters the Church, taking its usual place. Meanwhile, during the feast, people singing, clapping, and watching the fireworks display mill around the various stalls of food and artisan crafts, as well as live entertainment and music, which surrounds the spectacle.
Fireworks are an important and integral part of the Parish Feast. Aficionados spend their time preparing fireworks for their Parish Feast months in advance. There is in fact, a yearly competition between different Parishes as to who organises the best firework display.
Outdoor festivities are mainly organised by the supporters of the band clubs. The main streets are decorated with banners, streamers, and electric lights amongst others. Band marches are played throughout the streets and squares. On the feast day, the whole family usually takes the opportunity to cook and meet for a big lunch, which is treated as a special event.
The day following the feast day is not a working day for many workers. It has been customary for whole families and close friends to take the day off and spend it together at the beach. This is called the ‘xalata’.