Most English-speaking Catholics grow up listening to carols like Silent Night. For Maltese children, it’s different, as, for that matter, are many of our traditions, from those of the rest of the world. Ninni, La Tibkix Iżjed (Sleep, Cry No More) is a traditional carol that is also used as a lullaby during the rest of the year.
In these health-conscious, meat-avoiding times, many people have learned how to sprout seeds. Here we do that too – but rather than adding them to meals, we do it for decoration. We pick a selection of seeds that are intended to give different results in the way of colour and texture and form, such as vetch, sunflower, and wheat. These are laid on a bed of slightly moistened cottonwool, and placed in a dark place in the run-up to Christmas. The cottonwool must not be wet, or the deeds will rot; you just have to flick a few drops onto it about once every four days. It is traditional to “sow” them on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, so that by the time December 25 comes around, you will have a selection of spiky red, wide green, and curly white sprouts. If you take the saucers into the light a week before Christmas, you will be in for a pleasant surprise.
The purpose of these decorations is to place them around the house, preferably with candles in the centre. Some, of course, are saved for placing around the Grotto, or around a lifelike wax or plaster statue of Baby Jesus. The Grotto used to be hand-made until a few years ago – these days, one may find them for sale too. Basically, these consist of thick brown paper, crumpled and them moistened with glue, and shaped into different “caves” to fit on a wooden base. As the glue dries, the cardboard hardens – and some people, at this point, sprinkle sand or soil to add texture. You may also add some brown colouring to the glue.
This grotto (presepju) is peopled by tiny figurines to represent the Christmas story. These were traditionally made from clay or papier machee and then coloured – today, plastic alternatives are readily available. Some figures (pasturi) are traditionally Maltese – here one must perforce mention the simpleton with no gift for the Baby Jesus but his awe and worship. Others are shepherds, sheep and goats, street singers, street musicians playing the pipe and drum, farmers and animals, bakers with loaves of bread and women with sacks of flour. At Epiphany, the Three Magi finally arrive at the main grotto; they would have begun their journey from the farthest corner of the room.
The first documented Maltese grotto is that of the Benedictine Nuns in Mdina, bearing the date 1826. There are life-size cribs in churches, too, during Advent. This tradition was begun in the 13th century by the Franciscan friars. Modern cribs are now often also mechanical.
In Malta it is traditional to have a procession with the statue of Baby Jesus, around the streets of towns and villages. This began in 1920, and is usually led by members of the Society for Christian Doctrine, founded by Saint Gorg Preca. This procession takes place before the Midnight Mass, during which a boy (or girl) in an acolyte’s habit makes the Priedka tal-Milied (Christmas Sermon), rather than the priest celebrating the Mass. One of the carols sung in the procession is the aforementioned Ninni, La Tibkix Iżjed (Sleep, Cry No More). This was written by a Jesuit priest from the village of Luqa, Fr Indri (Andrew) Schembri (1774-1862), originally for Maltese migrants in Tunis, in the eighteenth century. A custom that is dying out is the playing of Maltese bagpipes (iż-żaqq), reminiscent of the music of the shepherds, along with the singing. Ninni, La Tibkix Iżjed has been likened to Sinfonia Pastorale. It was originally called Benniena ta’ Ġesu Bambin (Cradle of Baby Jesus).
No mention of a Maltese Christmas would be complete without at least a passing mention of traditional foods; as a starter we have a small bowl of broth; first course is timpana (baked macaroni with pastry crust), and the main course is ħasi (rooster) and vegetables. Tea-time, if you can face it brings with it qagħaq tal-għasel (honey rings, actually “bracelets” of pastry stuffed with a treacle mixture).
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