Carnival Special Vol. 3

The History of the Carnival

in the Maltese Islands

Written by Juan Dingli • Photography by Szidonia Lorincz

This article will be the final in the series of articles of what goes on in the Maltese islands during the hectic and colourful carnival season. Malta and Gozo’s carnival celebrations are particularly unique and throughout the years managed to secure a huge following. Tourists from all over the world book their tickets in advance, locals start preparing for next year’s carnival days after it ends and expats have also joined in on the fun, so what makes this particular carnival so special? We’ll have to go back in time to the time of the Knights of St John to find out where this tradition started from, I bet you didn’t know that this event was hundreds of years old.

Believe it or not, the roots of carnival take us back thousands of years, when ancient civilizations used to celebrate the coming of spring by means of dancing and merrymaking. It is said that this event was usually held around the spring solstice late March. During the middle ages the Catholic Church tried to outlaw this seemingly pagan event this of course was to no avail and as the saying goes, if you cannot beat them, join them. The only solution was for carnival to be merged with the Catholic celebrations of the time. From that point onwards, carnival was to be held in connection with Easter and Good Friday. Interestingly enough, the word carnival sees its roots from the Italian words “Carne Vale”. When translated, these two Italian words mean “meat is allowed” and can be consumed. Catholic tradition stated that the last chance for meat to be consumed would be during carnival. Soon after, the forty days of lent would commence which meant that no consumption of meat or sweets would be allowed. Carnival served as the final chance for people to really enjoy food and revelry in excess. Merrymaking, sugary foods, drink and meat were all the norm during the carnival periods. This is all quite relevant to today’s version of carnival.

The actual carnival in Malta is said to have started around the year 1535; shortly after the arrival of the Knights of St John in Malta. The current Grand Master of the time was Grand Master De Ponte. Carnival was still quite different from the one we know and love today as it mainly involved tournaments between the Knights, displays of skill and small parties. The Grand Master would have had to approve all the events first before any carnival show would have commenced, though by time the festivities were taking a rowdy turn, which wasn’t a welcome sight by far. Some years later in the 1560s, the donning of masks made the events more interesting for everyone involved. Parties and celebrations were also being held on boats and some of the ships from the fleet of the Knights of St John would have been decorated for carnival. These would have been the equivalent of today’s floats, except they were at sea. Funnily enough though, the current floats still see a fair deal of water since the weather has been notoriously against the organizers favour in these last couple of years.

Come 1639, Grand Master Giovanni Paolo Lascaris had enacted a ban to stop women from wearing any masks or costumes that depicted the devil himself. This plus other bogus rules created quite an uproar as you can imagine which eventually lead to the Jesuits being expelled from Malta temporarily; that escalated quickly! A testament to this whole Lascarics debacle is a phrase still in use mostly by the older generations till this day. The phrase “Wicc Laskri” when translated would literally mean “The Face of Lascaris”. This interesting connotation, obviously derived from this event in history is often used to describe someone that is a kill-joy or someone that doesn’t know how to take a joke. Fast forwarding through the centuries, 1730 was the year when the carnival started taking a much more familiar feel. Most of the strict restrictions had almost been abolished and regular citizens would have had the freedom to even decorate their own float or costume. These floats would then be paraded through the streets, akin to what happens in our current year. The year 1751 was when a rival carnival was organized in the neighbouring town of Floriana due to the rapid expansion of the Valletta carnival. This carnival celebration apart from featuring grotesque costumes as well, also showed off the Grand Master’s main horse drawn carriage whilst being flanked by marching bands. At this point, one can really start seeing the similarity between today’s floats and the ones of the 1750s.

The period of the British rule over the Maltese islands also had its own fair share of interesting happenings such as the banning of masks on Carnival Sunday during the year 1846. This was obviously met with a cheek-in-tongue response by the dedicated carnival goers and if I may say so myself, this was quite a “Maltese” thing to do. The locals had decided to dress their animals in costumes since they themselves were outlawed from doing so, truly a unique spectacle. During the first quarter of the 20th century, carnival costumes and floats started taking a more satirical stance especially when it came to politics. People were dressing up as contemporary political figures, which in a way was also a form of protest and means of ridicule towards the administration of the time. As you can also imagine, this didn’t go down well with the authorities so the year 1936 saw the banning of political satire in carnival celebrations. This archaic prohibition was eventually lifted only a couple of years ago in 2013, a good step forward when it came to freedom of speech. The lifting of the ban also meant that creativity and indirect protests were no longer illegal.

Till the 1970s, the carnival was still being held in St George’s square in Valletta. Due to the ever-increasing size of these events, the carnival was then moved to Freedom Square from the year 1972 till 2011. The recent construction of the parliament meant that the carnival had to be relocated again, this time to the former bus terminus that surrounded the Triton fountain. Soon after, the carnival then took place around the granaries of Floriana. It was only in the last couple of years when the floats started entering Valletta again. St George’s square has also become the main spotlight after years of not being used for carnival celebrations.

The carnival has really evolved a lot throughout the years to arrive to our current version of this traditional event. An event which we can say that is hundreds of years old, an event which has now spread out to all over Malta and Gozo with most villages hosting their own version of the carnival celebrations. The amount of dedication truly shows which shows that the carnival in Malta has no intention of slowing down, so we really hope that you had a blast this year and we look forward to seeing you next year!