The Cultural Origins of Malta’s Christmas Traditions

The hugely popular holiday destination of Malta is most commonly associated with summer breaks because of its unbeatable golden beaches and relaxing resorts. But Malta is also a place with an extraordinarily unique history that has been shaped by numerous reigns over many centuries. This rich mix of cultural influences defines the Maltese character – and its Christmas celebrations just the same. Visiting the archipelago in December will make for an enjoyable vacation, so don’t overlook what this tiny paradise can offer during the festive season. Read on to find out more about the food, customs and general festivities you can expect in Malta this winter!

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Malta in the Winter

With its Mediterranean climate, you won’t find temperatures dipping below 13°C throughout the Maltese winter. Even in December you can enjoy sunny days with average temperatures of 20°C. In other words, don’t expect snow on Christmas Day. That being said, Malta still manages to offer a cosy setting from which to enjoy the festive season and get into the Christmas spirit. Fireworks, festivals, markets, decorations and large family gatherings help create an atmosphere of jubilance across the archipelago.

Catholic Traditions

Christianity is believed to have been introduced to the Maltese islands by Paul the Apostle in A.D. 60 after a ship carrying the Saint and hundreds of other political prisoners was shipwrecked during a storm. Legend has it that the apostle was warmly welcomed by the Maltese people, who offered him shelter and kindness. One night, as St Paul sat around the fire with the Maltese people, he was bitten by a poisonous snake yet suffered no illness or injury. The Maltese interpreted this as a sign that St Paul was a special man and genuine in his religious preaching.

The rock upon which St Paul is said to have found himself shipwrecked is now known as St Paul’s Island, where a statue of the Apostle is mounted in commemoration. Each year on February the 10th, the St Paul’s arrival in Malta is honoured with the Shipwreck Feast. For a country with such a deeply rooted Catholic culture, the feast naturally bears great significance – as does Christmas. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Maltese islands celebrate the festive season in a traditionally Catholic manner.

Religious symbols and imagery are heavily prevalent in street displays and public decorations throughout December. You’ll find decorative presentations of baby Jesus everywhere from restaurants to the local post office. Nativity scenes are a huge tradition in Malta; a similar custom to what you would find in many Italian locations like Naples, where artistry cribs are crafted and displayed all across the town.

British Influences

Britain’s legacy in Malta didn’t conclude until 1964, after 150 years of British rule over the Mediterranean island. Although now an independent nation and sovereign Commonwealth, the prevalence of British influence is evident in everything from the red phone booths on the streets of Valletta to the number of Irish pubs sprawled throughout the island’s party central. Remnants of Britain’s legacy is especially apparent during the festive season in Malta, when mince pies, chestnuts, mulled wine and tins of Quality Street chocolates are sold at every store. Christmas dinner in Malta is also similar to what you would find on a British table – with turkey, vegetables and potatoes making up a predominant part of the spread. You might even be served some British-style trifle as dessert!

Italian Influences

In being just a stone’s throw from neighbouring Sicily, there are of course a great number of cultural similarities between Malta and Italy. Pasta dishes such as lasagna, casserole or cannelloni are staples of the Maltese Christmas dinner and can be attributed to the islands’ pasta-loving neighbours.

Panettone and other traditional Italian sweets are also extremely common during the festive season in Malta. Perhaps the biggest cultural similarity between the Italians and Maltese in terms of how they spend Christmas relates to the heavy emphasis on family time, which may from a wider perspective be based on the nations’ shared Catholic values. In Malta, like Italy, it is common for extended family and close friends to get together in large numbers and partake in party games or other festive activities. Playing cards is a common social past time in Malta – just like in Sicily, where card games like Zecchinetta are commonly enjoyed with family at Christmas. In Malta, local families might play ‘Bixla’ (a variant of Briscola), Ħalliela or other family card games like ‘Chase the Ace’.

Middle Eastern Influences

One can find traces of the the past Ottoman Empire’s occupation all throughout Malta, with strong Arabic influences evident in both the islands’ unusual language and its architecture. At Christmas, a number of seasonal Maltese sweets date back to 15th century Ottoman rule, when the Arabs brought to the island a number of traditionally Middle Eastern ingredients like spices, cinnamon, rose, vanilla, almond and syrups.

One of such sweets, the traditional ‘Qagħaq tal-għasel’ or ‘Honey Ring’, tends to be eaten at Christmas. This pastry is ring-shaped with a crunchy outside and soft inner filling of mixed spice and moist treacle. Then there’s the ‘Imbuljuta’ – a deliciously rich hot drink for colder evenings during the Maltese winter. This warm beverage is filled with seasonal flavours like cloves, cinnamon, orange, chocolate and chestnut. Finally, Helwa tat-Tork, a nut-based and vanilla-flavoured nougat – reminiscent of Turkish Delight – makes for a popular after-dinner treat during the winter.

American Influences

Like most Western nations, Malta has been hugely influenced by the Christmas celebrated in the states. With a dominating movie industry producing tons of American Christmas movies and a mass commercialization of the holiday by globally famous US brands, it would be difficult to avoid the super power’s influence on Christmas customs anywhere in the world. In Malta, you’ll find that typically American traditions such as decorating one’s yard and Christmas tree with elaborate electric light displays can be observed. Decorations featuring a red Santa and his reindeers are also normal, as are candy canes, Christmas cookies and other common American treats.

Festive Things to Do

You’ll find an array of cosy markets across Malta in December. A particularly festive one is held at the famous Popeye Village. This iconic film set-turned-amusement park is a great attraction for kids and adults alike, and in December features its own Christmas market complete with hot chocolate stalls and artisan craft shops. Also worth visiting is the Christmas market at Sliema’s main shopping mall, Tigne Point, where cosy German-style cottages may look a little out-of-place in the Maltese sunshine but which nonetheless offer great gift shopping opportunities.

You could also catch a show at one of Malta’s theatrical venues. A popular concert is held at the opulent St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta each year, where a Chamber Orchestra will present rousing music from the likes of Handel, Bach, Rutter and Buhagiar. Alternatively, the capital’s stunning and historically notable Teatru Manoel presents a classical Christmas concert each year. Smaller production companies will also put on their own festive musicals and comedy shows, while cinemas screen seasonal ballet or opera performances from around the world.

Of course, you can rely on the Maltese to bring fireworks into any form of celebration. Firework shows are held on different dates throughout December, often coinciding with a seasonal event or market such as those at Valletta’s waterfront.

Party animals will be pleased to know that, though parties are not as prevalent in December as during the summer, there’ll be a breadth of nightlife events to attend in practically ever part of the island. Boat parties, Christmas-themed club nights and raves will help spread festive cheer during the colder nights of Malta’s winter. For those who like a nostalgic twist to their clubbing experience, Malta’s annual Boogie Nights event – a retro-themed disco fest in Ta’Qali – takes place in December.

On a final note – don’t miss the famous Mdina Glass Christmas tree in Valletta. The island is very proud of its high quality, hand-made and intrinsically beautiful glass products – and the artists behind Mdina Glass display the tall and richly coloured glass Christmas tree in the city centre each year.

Convinced to pack your bags for Malta this Christmas? Make sure you learn this one seasonal greeting (a phrase you’re guaranteed to hear throughout December!); Il-Milied it-Tajjeb!

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