64. Noel in Malta during 1945 to present
DEC. 22, 2022.
It’s Christmas! Pete dons the Santa hat to take Ryan on a tour of Christmas in Malta. Snails and rabbit for Christmas dinner! An entire town that impersonates Bethlehem at Christmas! A musical instrument made out of a dog! We’ve got it all… and more.
This festive episode took Pete and Ryan to the Republic of Malta, a small island located in the Mediterranean sea, about 90km (56 miles) South of the island of Sicily.
The country consists of the main island Malta and the smaller islands of Gozo and Comino and covers an area of just 316 square kilometres (122 square miles). So small is the island of Malta, you can drive across the length of it in about an hour I guess depending on traffic.
Malta’s population is about 517,000, about the same as the city of Bradford in the UK, or Reno, Nevada in the USA, but it remains the 8th most densely populated country in the world.
The national anthem is called "L-Innu Malti" ("The Hymn of Malta") and was written in 1850 in the form of a prayer to God. It was eventually declared the anthem as the official Maltese anthem on 22 February 1941.
The language of Malta is Maltese which is derived from late medieval Sicilian Arabic.
The capital city of Malta is Valetta
Malta is famous for a few items, including the Maltese Cross, the symbol of The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of aka the Knights Hospitaller. This is quite a common symbol used in various places today, St Johns Ambulance (st John’s again), emergency medical services in Australia, found on numerous international medals and coats of arms.
Another Maltese things is the Maltese Dog. This is a small dog about 9 inches tall with long straight white hair, believed to have originated in Malta, possibly as early as 1000BC and referred to numerous times in Greek and roman literature.
Studies suggest the modern Maltese is not likely to be a genetic relative of those ancient animals, but is it’s own beast, prized as small companion animals and ranked 59th of 79 breeds assessed for intelligence.
On the other hand, the chocolate and honeycomb snack Maltesers are nothing to do with Malta, being originally called Energy Balls and invented by Forrest Mars in 1936. The name comes from ‘malt’ and ‘teasers’, not Malta.
As part of the episode, Pete and Ryan cracked open a Maltese beer called Cisk. This has been brewed and packaged in Malta since 1929, and was launched in August 1929 just weeks before the great market crash. It is said Cisk was first brewed by a family of bankers and the name Cisk is an attempt to pronounce cheque. Cisk has won numerous awards, including in World Beer Awards 2017 the prestigious World’s Best Czech Style Pale Lager title
History Of Malta
The island was first inhabited in around 5900 BC by Early Man, whose agricultural methods degraded the soil until the islands became uninhabitable.
It was then repopulated around 3850 BC by a civilisation that built Megalithic Temples across Malta, which today are among the oldest surviving buildings in the world.
Eventually their civilisation collapsed too and bronze age warriors moved in until 8BCE saw the arrival of Phoenicians who originated out of the Syria/Israel/Lebanon area in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Phoenicians themselves went on to create the Carthaginian empire based out of Tunisia and that included nearby Malta.
Around 200BCE Romans moved in after the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage.
An important moment in 60CE was reported that Saint Paul was shipwrecked on an island named Melite, which was taken by many to mean Malta, where you will find a bay called ‘St Paul’s Bay’
Over time the Romans gave way to the Byzantines, during which Malta formed part of the province of Sicily.
After this, from the 7th century, the island started to be threatened by Muslim expansion until 870 AD, the threat was realised and Malta was occupied by Muslims from North Africa.
This lasted for a while until an end to Muslim rule came as part of the Norman conquests. In 1091, Count Roger I of Sicily invaded.
Thus from 1530 to 1798, nearly 300 years, Malta was ruled by the Order of Saint John (the hospitallers) as a vassal state of the Kingdom of Sicily, with the Hospitallers protecting the island from attacks by the Ottoman empire, surviving the Great Seige of 1565.
Fast forward to 1798 for a couple of years of French rule after Napolean arrived, but the French were so unpopular, the Maltese rose up and asked the British to come along to help. Which of course they did.
In 1800 Malta became voluntary part of the British empire as a protectorate. Due to its location, it became a major military asset, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet.
During World War I, Malta also became known as the Nurse of the Mediterranean due to the large number of wounded soldiers who were put up there.
And Malta’s valuable wartime service continued into World War II resulting in the entire island being awarded the George Cross.
After a referendum, the State of Malta was formed on 21 September 1964 and on 1 April 1979 the last British forces left the island.
For a while Malta had a policy of supporting Gaddafi's Libya,and North Korea but eventually moved more Europe-ward and in 2004 joined the EU.
Notably, Malta is not a member of NATO, declaring itself a neutral state in 1980.
The atomic Age
The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 effectively marked the end of World War II but also the beginning of the Atomic Age.
Shortly after, in 1949 The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic warhead. This marked the start of a new war – known as the cold war, where most countries were allied with one or other of the nuclear powers, between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) on one side and the Warsaw Pact on the other.
But the cold war eventually started to thaw. In the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (change), and relations with the USA began to improve.
1989 the Berlin Wall collapsed and times were changing.
Both sides wanted to meet to talk it through – but they needed to find somewhere neutral to do it. They chose neutral Malta.
Between 2-3 December 1989 the historic Malta Summit took place. US president George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, met in a summit of enormous importance.
Both sides were based on and had their meetings on ships - the Soviet delegation used the missile cruiser Slava and the US delegation were on USS Belknap.
The ships were anchored off the coast, but, stormy weather and heavy seas resulted in some meetings being cancelled or rescheduled and also gave rise to the nickname the "Seasick Summit".
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of it “unfortunately—they chose Malta, which turned out to be a really horrible place to be in December. Although the Maltese were wonderful, the weather was really bad."
It didn’t stop them though and the summit was hugely significant. During the summit, Bush and Gorbachev declared an end to the Cold War.
Bush said "We can realise a lasting peace and transform the East-West relationship to one of enduring co-operation. That is the future that Chairman Gorbachev and I began right here in Malta."
The topic for this episode is Noel, which is basically just another word for Christmas. It’s not a word used in conversation, but is found particularly in Christmas cards and in Christmas Carols such as the First Noel.
The word can be traced via French to the Latin word natalis, meaning "birthday" or " relating to birth" – obviously referencing the birth of Jesus, or the Nativity and an early use of noel (spelled nowell) can be found in the late 14th-century Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
“Loud rang the voice of clerk and cantor there aloft, “Nowell, Nowell!” they sang, and cried the word full oft.”
A Maltese Christmas – Door 1 - chocolate
In this episode we interviewed Chris, a real-life Maltese person who shared his memories of preparing the nativity crib scene, baking and decoaring the Christmas snacks, including Honey rings, the Christmas log and much, much more.
He also shared his memory of the midnight mass, where a child from the community would be selected to read the sermon, and after the mass, when people would gather and enjoy mulled wine and good company.
Christmas day saw a huge range of meals available for Christmas, including snails, rabbit, lasagna, duck, lamb, and of course, roast potatoes, which were in the past prepared and taken to the village bakery for a lovely crispy finish.
And of course there are presents and family and that most important of Christmas ingredients – love.
Chris mentioned the traditional Maltese tradition of the Christmas crib or presepju.
These are nativity scenes – little model dioramas of the shed and the baby in the manger and the various characters in the story of the birth of Jesus. Making them is a tradition in Malta, and is also found in parts of Italy, notably Sicily.
From around October, shops start selling statuettes for your crib, known as ‘pasturi’, derived from the Italian ‘pastore’ meaning shepherd, the first visitors to Jesus.
Originally they would have been made from carved stone or coal residue or clay but over time other materials became popular, such as papier mache, and more recently plastic.
People make small personal versions, or huge elaborate townscapes – much like Christmas lights in the uk, some people go all out and become something of an attraction.
Sadly, in the post war years, this tradition started to die out until in 1986, a group of Crib enthusiasts got together and formed the ‘Association of friends of the crib ’ to keep the crib tradition in Malta alive.
Every year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the Friends of the Crib hold an exhibition of works by their members. About one hundred cribs all showing the true story of Christmas, the birth of baby Jesus.
One feature often found in cribs is a very Maltese decoration – the Gulbiena. This consists of long strands of an etiolated pea-seed, forming long, whitish-yellow strands that can be bundled together and are used to decorate your Christmas crib.
There is one Christmas Crib that really stands out in Malta though – a full size recreation of Bethleehem.
Eleven years ago the village of Ghajnsielem in Gozo took a bunch of abandoned fields and built a full-size Nativity village. Thus started a tradition they repeated up to today.
The town has 150 actors playing residents of Bethlehem, plus animals, donkeys ducks and geese, and 3 newborns to play the role of baby Jesus.
If that’s not enough, in 2022 there’s even a re-enactment of the Adoration of the Magi. Three Wise Men will depart on horseback from Malta, onto the ferry terminal, which I’m sure you remember from the bible, then making their triumphal entrance to the Nativity village on the Epiphany (6th Jan).
Before that you can visit the carpenter and blacksmith’s, the bakery, a market selling fresh food and veg, or you can even visit the Bethlehem Inn, where you can indeed rent a room and stay for a night!
And entrance to the site is free, but you should probably leave a donation, perhaps some gold, frankincense or myrrh.
Cremona puts his stamp on Maltese Art
Christmas is a time for sending letters and cards to our loved ones and these aren’t going anywhere without a stamp.
The undisputed king of stamp design in Malta was an artist named Emvin Cremona, who wasn’t just a stamp designer, actually considered one of the best Maltese artists of the 20th century.
His full name was Emanuel Vincent Cremona – Emanual Vincent became Emvin and he was born in 1919 in Valetta, Malta’s capital.
In 1935, aged 16, he started at the School of Arts in Valletta, where he did well enough by 1938 to gain entry into the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome where studied until the outbreak of war in 1940, when he had to go home.
He later went on to win a scholarship to study in London’s Slade school of art also spending his summer studying in Paris.
In 1948 he returned to Malta where he married and had 4 children and he became the painting-master at the School of Arts.
But his career started to take off after his friend and fellow artist Anton Inglott died in whilst working on the decoration of Msida church. Cremona whas asked to finish it
This work led to to other church commissions, large scale murals where his work generated a reputation for vivid and rich colouring. In fact what he was trying to do was create church art that was modern yet truly devotional.
His career took another turn in 1957 when Cremona was given an opportunity by the Maltese Department of Post to work at a quite different scale – a stamp commemorating the 15th anniversary of the award of the George Cross.
Then, when in 1964 Malta gained its independence, again Cremona was commissioned to design a series of stamps to commemorate the event.
In fact 1964 was a very busy year for Cremona as he also produced the designs of the first Christmas stamps issued by Malta.
He continued to design Christmas stamps and his designs for Christmas 1967 are notably innovative, a triptych format given depth by a trapezoidal shape.
In total, from his first set in 1957 to his last in 1980, Cremona was responsible for 62 sets of stamps, comprising more than 170 different original designs in 20 years.
But it wasn’t all stamps, his work is visible in churches all around Malta, and his paintings also hang at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva and the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
Cremona died in 1987 leaving behind a diverse legacy of art from tiny stamps to huge church paintings and is now regarded as one of Malta’s best artists of the 20th century
Island of Honey
Malta has been famous for honey for centuries, so much so that the Greeks named the island ‘Melite’ from Meli meaning honey.
It’s said the Phoenicians introduced the domestication of beekeeping in apiaries and earthenware jars. Jars were kept under trees, especially carob trees, to keep them out of the sun.
In fact, in the Maltese countryside one can still find apiaries that date back to Roman times, including a famous one in Xemxija, which plays host to an apiary that is amongst the oldest apiaries in the world.
In the 1950’s movable frame hives appeared, imported from Britain, which became pretty standard for the bee behind all this honey - Apis mellifera ruttneri aka the Maltese Honey Bee.
For many years this was the only honeybee species in the Maltese islands, until 1992 when the Varroa mite devastated bee populations on the islands, with an estimated 4000 colonies which were lost.
As a result of this people started importing queens from other species to the island. So between the mites and hybridisation with these other bee subspecies the Maltese Honey Bee came to be at risk of dying out.
Fortunately, efforts are underway to save the subspecies, breeding queens, training people in insemination techniques and the use of ‘mating boxes’.
So there is hope for the Maltese bee yet.
What is certainly missing from the streets of present-day Malta is a once-traditional sound of Christmas; the sound of the Maltese bagpipe.
Called the Zaqq, on Christmas Eve, Zaqq players would go out in the streets late in the evening or early night, to entice the populace to come out of their homes and attend midnight Mass in the village church.
But what is a Zaqq
More recent versions are made of calf- or goatskin, but versions further back in history suggest a quite different animal.
A description from the early 19th century from the book "Maltese Oral Poetry and Folk Music" says
“The bag is the complete skin of a large dog, exhibiting besides the body, the appliances of head, legs and tail to boot. A bullock's horn is fitted to the mouth and punched with the requisite number of holes for playing.”
The skin is kept intact, complete with fur, including the legs and tail and a bull’s horn is fitted to one end to amplify the sound. This horn might be decorated and adorned with Shells to ward off the evil eye.
When played, the żaqq is inflated through a blow pipe inserted into one of the forelegs. The
The zaqq was frequently played accompanied by the tambur – a kind of tambourine/drum but in the atomic age, playing the Zaqq was a dying tradition.
Reported in the article “The Maltese Zaqq” in the “The Galpin Society Journal”, May, 1977 they reported that they found just 9 players of the zaqq in the whole of Malta
“In all the future outlook for the zaqq is bleak,”they wrote“extinction is inevitable.”
It was also reported that the last player of the old school Toni Cachia died in 2004.
But all is not lost. An article from September 8, 2013 in the Sunday Times of Malta introduces Edmond Jackson, who says “I used to listen to my father study and teach the bagpipes and I got hooked by their unusual sound,”
He decided to try to learn this Maltese bagpipe, and he says, “I had almost given up hope when, by a stroke of luck, I found Toni Cachia” “And before I knew it, he was sitting there playing the pipes and teaching me how to play and tune them.”
So, the Zaqq has not died out, and today Jackson leads the Żaqq u Tanbur folk group in Malta.
So the sound of a Maltese Christmas is making a comeback.