Nothing defines the culture on the Maltese Islands more than religion. Life revolves around the neighborhood Catholic churches and once a year, a massive feast is held to honor the patron saint of each church. Festivities start in the spring, and throughout the spring, summer, and fall, there is a feast nearly every weekend, somewhere on the islands.
During my visit, the Feast of St. Publius was scheduled in Floriana, the city adjacent to Malta‘s capital of Valletta. On Sunday morning, I hopped a bus to Floriana, arriving early in the afternoon, before any of the official activities had begun. Huge red pennants, elaborately embroidered in gold, hung above every street, marking the route of the parade that would step off later in the afternoon. Families clustered around tall tables set out in the streets, sipping espresso and snacking on appetizers, while men congregated at the tabernas.
I eavesdropped on conversations, all of which fixated on a single subject: would the St. Publius celebration be the best feast of the season? Competition is fierce, as the parish with the best event gets bragging rights for the ensuing year. Debate ratcheted up, with liberal amounts of alcohol fueling the friendly claims of superiority, until the band arrived and the time for talking was over. The thousands of visitors who had been trickling in over the past couple of hours fell in behind the band and we were off!
Tons of confetti and shredded paper rained down. Residents tossed party favors from their second and third floor balconies. Paraders jumped and tussled for a share of the neckties, Frisbees, beads, inflatable toys, candy, and balloons that were thrown overboard. It was the craziest cross between a Mardi Gras and a New York ticker tape parade that I’d ever seen. After the parade passed, kids dove into two-foot high piles of confetti, tossing handsfull at one another in a mock paper war. The band finally ran out of steam and the crowd dispersed for a leisurely dinner while awaiting the most important event of the day, carrying the icon of St. Publius through the streets of Floriana.
Two hours later, well-fed, refreshed spectators began trickling into St. Publius Church. Following a short mass, more than a dozen padres wearing snow white cassocks stepped to the icon of their patron saint and crouched beneath wooden poles protruding from its base. On a command from the Monseigneur, they rose, grimacing beneath the enormous weight. They paused at the front door of the church, rocking back and forth, as if to achieve synchronicity before tackling the steps to the street.
For more than two hours they carried St. Publius down ancient cobblestone lanes, followed by throngs of faithful. At dusk, they arrived back at St. Publius, now outlined by thousands of sparkling miniature white lights. Though this was the only patron saint feast I attended in the Maltese Islands, I’m willing to bet it took honors for this year’s best of show.
Disclosure: I was a guest of ElanGuest English Language School during my stay in the Maltese Islands. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.