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Carnival has always been a period of my life I look back fondly on, although along the years I have celebrated it in different ways. As a child I enjoyed any costume mum picked for me and going to simple children’s parties, as a teen I took part in the festival and in my adult years I participated as a photographer. When I took part in the dance competitions I further understood all the work and money that goes into organising the activities and also realised how fun it could be! Once I stopped taking part, the colours, floats and dances still called to me, and this is where my camera saved me once again, and I found a purpose in photographing and capturing the spirit of Carnival. This year is the first year for as long as I can remember that I will not be able to celebrate it; therefore, this is my tribute to this decades-old tradition.
But why do we celebrate Carnival?
The word Carnival is of Latin origins where ‘carnis’ means flash referring to meat, while ‘levare’ means ‘to leave off’, as Carnival is a pre-lent festival celebrated right before the forty days of fasting, where meat consumption is no longer permitted in the Roman Catholic religion. Carnival ends on Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Grass in Latin or Fat Tuesday.
But as with most of the traditions, Carnival has its roots in pagan rituals. It is speculated that Carnival originated some 5000 years ago, some say with the Egyptians, and others say with the Greeks. What is certain is that many pagans held large celebrations that revolved around the spring equinox to celebrate the end of winter and the coming of spring, hence the renewal of fertility. Carnival festivities happened at the end of winter as it was the last chance ordinary people had to eat well before a period of food scarcity. Since livestock was usually slaughtered in November, the end of winter was when all the leftover stock of lard, butter and meat would have to be consumed before starting to decay with warmer temperatures.
When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, and the Roman Catholic Church’s influence spread across the world, native people did not want to give up their traditions and celebrations. Instead of forcing them, the church gave their pagan festivities a Christian meaning. The spring festivities turned into Easter and the period of food scarcity turned into lent, representing the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert. Consequently, Carnival turned into a pre-lent celebration.
Today Carnival is celebrated in over 50 countries, evolving beyond a pre-lent celebration, with every country giving it its unique spin.
Carnival in Malta
Historically in Malta, carnival activities can be traced back to the early 1400s where we find directives issued about the selling price of meat during Carnival.
Then celebrations were highly influenced by the knights, who gave importance to the festivities and organized balls and competitions. Toggling between added restrictions from one grandmaster to more lenient rule from another, the celebration survived on to the British rule and even up till today.
I always found the sight of floats parading through the streets of Malta’s capital Valletta to be a real-life oxymoron; where the sturdy bastion walls that held on for generations are temporarily turned into a fool’s paradise. A common phrase that expresses this would be that ‘the city built for gentleman is temporarily turned into the city of fools.’ Going through clips of past Carnivals, which I have also linked below, you can see Carnival’s evolution through the years and how elaborated the floats, costumes and dancing have become.
As with every country, Malta has its twist on carnival festivities like the ‘Parata’, ‘Kukkanja’ and ‘il-Qarcilla’ among colourful floats, costumes and other celebrations.
The ‘Parata’ is a re-enactment of the Great Seige of 1956 to show the Knight’s victory over the Turks. People dress up as knights and Turks and dance re-enact the battle, ending with the knights as victors.
The ‘Kukkanja’, or Cockaigne, is climbing a greased pole to grab a prize. This tradition started in Malta in 1721, during the rule of the Knights of St. John but is no longer organized despite efforts to bring it back.
The ‘Qarcilla’ is a wandering farce where a man dressed as a notary read out a marriage contract in rhyming verse full of witticisms, with some verging on the obscene, to a bride and groom. The first known qarcilla was written for the 1760 Carnival by the poet Fr Felic Demarco and was still held in the Valletta Carnival up to the early 20th Century. It made its return in 2014 with Trevor Zahra’s version.
In Gozo, Carnival takes a novel approach. You can witness a different interpretation of the festivities from that happening on the sister island of Malta. Celebrations in Gozo were first officially recorded in 1952 and continued going strong to this day, with the main festivities happen in Gozo’s capital Victoria and Nadur square. The Gozitans still have their floats and parades, but it is best known for the novelty of the Grotesque Carnival of Nadur, which is full of personality and satire despite not having an organizing committee to plan it.
Some people argue that it is a festival for children, but I believe it is the festival for all young people at heart, who can use this period as a creative outlet and make people smile. Love it or hate it; this tradition is full of life and colour that brightens many people’s days, and we can never have too much of that!
What do you think of Carnival celebrations? Do you usually go to the festival?
You can see more faces from the Maltese Carnival here.