Revisiting Cultural Traditions With Open Eyes

Nicholas Gambin analyses Maltese cultural traditions that have stopped, remained, rebirthed, or changed in some way in today’s society.

Cultural changes do not happen in the blink of an eye; they happen gradually. World wars, globalisation, and advancements in technology have continued to push societies forward and cause irreversible changes. Old traditions have either stopped, continued, adapted, or been replaced by new ones.

Throughout our lifetime, we frequently consume our culture passively and without even knowing. When we walk through the cobbled streets, we hardly spare a thought for the culture hidden beneath our feet. However, Malta’s rich culture and traditions surround us in unexpected ways. 

Guido Lanfranco’s book Drawwiet u Tradizzjonijiet Maltin acts as an excellent starting point to delve into some of Malta’s cultural traditions. This, paired with the insights of Dr Michael Spagnol (Head of Department, Department of Maltese, University of Malta), offers us a glimpse into what this Mediterranean island has to offer.

Dr Michael Spagnol
Photo by James Moffett

Food – Żeppoli 

If the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, it comes as no surprise that food is such a core part of Maltese culture. If you have never tried żeppoli (like our poor THINK editor), they are fried soft pastries filled with cream or sweetened cottage cheese. These sweet treats are linked to the feast of Saint Joseph on the 19th March. In fact, the first part of the word, Żepp, is a common Maltese pet name for someone named Ġużeppi (in Maltese) or Joseph (in English).


Lanfranco writes that sweet shops have been making this dessert since the 19th Century. In terms of origin, Spagnol explains that this food is typical of South Italy, who refer to it as zeppole in places like Naples, Catanzaro, Reggio Calabria, and Sicily. Malta has had a long cultural relationship with Italy. The link is not surprising.

Although żeppoli were usually eaten exclusively on the 19th March, nowadays, you can buy them from pastry shops in the weeks leading up to St. Joseph’s Day. Spagnol comments that ‘because Maltese people seem to have such a connection with traditional dishes, they continue adapting these traditions and sometimes create new ones altogether.’ Another example of this is the qagħaq tal-għasel, which are sweet pastry rings filled with treacle (not honey, even though għasel in Maltese means honey). These were originally made around Christmas time but are now produced all year round. More recently, figolli, the Easter pastry filled with almond meal, has been transformed into smaller bite-sized versions called figollini. If you are a foodie, then you can definitely explore the culture of Malta through its food.

Activities – Il-Ġostra

Imagine a time before the Internet, when people had to actually go outside and invent ways to pass the time. One such activity is Il-Ġostra, which you might have seen photos of shared all over social media. The game is believed to be derived from the Neapolitan game of the Cockaigne pole. It involves someone crawling along a greased pole fixed at an angle while trying to grab flags; entertainingly, most participants fall into the sea. This used to be a popular activity for men during village feasts. The flags also hold religious meaning, with a blue and white one dedicated to St Mary, a yellow and white one for the Vatican, and the Belgian tricolour for St Julian, who is believed to have been born in the Belgian town of Ath in 7AD.

Il-Ġostra competitor gets close to the flag

Il-Ġostra was organised in summer, when falling into the water is refreshing rather than shocking. Now, it’s organised in villages close to the water, like Msida, Balluta, and St Julians. The game wasn’t always played over water. Spagnol mentions a similar event, the kukkanja, which used to take place during Carnival. The pole was vertical instead of sloping horizontally, with people trying to climb up the greased pole to reach the prizes hanging from the top. These prizes included cured meats and wine. The pole laying horizontally makes the game slightly easier (and safer), so one can imagine why this alteration was made.

Images of this activity have made their way onto Reuters’ Images of the Day, snapped by Maltese photojournalist Darrin Zammit Lupi. 

Superstition – The Eye of The Luzzu

Tradition and superstition often come hand in hand. From breaking a mirror giving you seven years of bad luck, to Ancient Greeks fearing that a storm was caused by angry gods. When human beings cannot understand something, they create myths and superstitions to give it meaning. Whether these are based on truth or fact is a discussion for another article. 

Maltese seaside villages, such as Marsaxlokk, Marsaskala, or St Paul’s Bay, are dotted with brightly coloured fishing boats called luzzu. This type of boat can be traced back to the ancient Phoenicians, and their stable, sturdy, and reliable nature meant that they could be used in both good and bad weather. However, one of the most striking features of the luzzu is the two painted or carved-out eyes that stare directly into your soul.

The concept of the ‘evil eye’ is widespread across Mediterranean cultures, such as the Turkish Nazar eye-shaped amulet, the Italian cornicello (designed to ward off the evil eye), and the hand-shaped Hamsa talisman found in West Asia. The eyes on the luzzu are probably linked to the Eye of Horus or Osiris, which was the Phoenicians’ god of protection from evil. For the Phoenicians, the eye was a symbol of protection and good health, so the eyes were painted onto their boats to protect the fishermen from any harm while at sea. With no modern weather reporting technology, fishermen turned to superstition to give them hope and protect them on their journeys. 

Performances – Qarċilla 

Lanfranco tells us that the Qarċilla tradition dates back to the 18th Century, around the time of the Maltese linguist Giovanni Pietro Francesco Agius de Soldanis, who wrote the first lexicon and systematic grammar of the Maltese language. Since the Catholic Church was so strong throughout Maltese history, people were brought up to be very religious and obedient. Carnival was the one time a year when people could have some fun and disobey. 

The Qarċilla, sometimes called a Maltese wedding or ‘iż-żwieġ la Maltija’, was a farce or popular drama enacted in village streets during Carnival. Two men would dress up as the groom and notary. On his head, the groom would wear a figolla in the shape of a woman and decorated to look like a bride. The notary would then recite a fake and comedic marriage contract invented on the spot, which usually included political and social satire, sexual innuendos, and swearing. People would listen and cheer, and once his speech was over, the actors would cut up the figolla into pieces and share it with the audience. 

One of the best known Qarċilla is the one written by Mgr Feliċ Demarco for Carnival in 1760. What is quite interesting about this tradition is that, although it seemed to have stopped and been lost to history, it actually had a rebirth back in 2014. Over the last few years, Maltese writers like Trevor Zahra, Immanuel Mifsud, and Leanne Ellul have been commissioned to write their own version of a Qarċilla, which is then staged and performed by citizens. The tradition is finding a new life in today’s society. 

For a culture to exist, it needs people. It is people who create traditions, keep them alive, or preserve them, be it through lived experiences, speaking to people like Spagnol, or documenting them as Lanfranco did with his book. To appreciate our culture, we need to learn about it. Written records help us preserve these traditions and allow culture to grow and develop. 

Further Reading

Lanfranco, G. (2001). Drawwiet u tradizzjonijiet Maltin. Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza

Reuters Staff. (2018). Ready, steady, splash! Malta celebrates historic greasy pole tournament. Reuters US. Retrieved 9 June 2021, from

Ilħna mill-imgħoddi

reel-to-reel machine in motion

Biex taqra l-artiklu bl-Ingliż, agħfas hawn.

Kaxxi fuq kaxxi, miksijin bl-għabra, jistennew is-sekondiera tagħmel ir-ronda tagħha. Is-sekondi jsiru minuti. Isiru sigħat. Ġranet. Xhur. Snin sħaħ. Deċennji, sewwasew.

Il-Prof. Edward Fenech wirithom mingħand il-Prof. Ġużè Aquilina, imma ġara li l-kaxxi u ta’ ġo fihom ingħataw il-ġenb għal ħafna żmien. Parti ġmielha mill-istorja lingwistika u kulturali tagħna konna bil-mod il-mod qed nitilfuha minn taħt imneħirna.

Mistura fil-kaxxi nstabu r-reel-to-reels li l-Prof. Aquilina, missier il-Lingwistika Maltija, kien uża biex jimmortala l-ilħna bil-kisra djalettali ta’ bosta kelliema minn lokalitajiet differenti f’Malta u Għawdex. 

Illum, kulma jmur qed nagħrfu u napprezzaw il-ġmiel ta’ mużajk li jsawru d-djaletti tal-gżejjer Maltin. Iżda, sa ftit snin ilu, min jitkellem bid-djalett aktarx li kien jitqies ta’ klassi baxxa. Ħtija tal-preġudizzju, xi wħud ippruvaw jinfatmu minn dan l-aspett ewlieni tal-identità kulturali tagħhom. Il-preżenza tad-djalett qajl qajl bdiet tiddgħajjef. In-nies tħalltu fiż-żwieġ, u magħhom tħalltet il-lingwa. Min mar joqgħod f’raħal ieħor kien espost għal djalett differenti, u t-tfal bdew imorru l-iskola u jitgħallmu l-Malti standard, ‘il-pulit’, sajjem minn xi karatteristiċi li jżewqu t-taħdit.   

Il-Prof. Aquilina minn kmieni għaraf li ħaġa daqstant sabiħa ma kellniex nerħuha tiżolqilna minn idejna (jew ħalqna f’dan il-każ), u fis-snin sittin u sebgħin, irħielha lejn xi rħula Maltin u Għawdxin, idur bir-reel-to-reel recorder, jitħaddet man-nies dwarhom infushom, dwar is-snajja’ tagħhom, u dwar it-tradizzjonijiet li wirtu bil-fomm u bl-id. Bil-mikrofonu kien qed jaqbad il-ħsejjes u l-forom tad-djaletti, imma mhux biss. Ma’ kull intervista, kien qed jiddokumenta stil ta’ għajxien li llum jinħass tant ’il bogħod. Bl-għajnuna ta’ Benedikt Isserlin mill-Università ta’ Leeds ġabar 92 audio file b’madwar 50 siegħa taħdit djalettali, mhux kollu tal-istess kwalità. Bil-materjal miġbur, Aquilina u Isserlin fl-1981 ħarġu pubblikazzjoni li tittratta elementi fonoloġiċi tad-djaletti. Daqs tletin sena wara, John Paul Grima sema’ l-audio files wieħed wieħed, u b’reqqa kbira ddokumenta u kkataloga l-ħidma fit-teżina tal-Baċellerat tiegħu.

Fost l-ilħna li ltaqa’ magħhom Aquilina, hemm tal-iskarpan mill-Għarb, li, hu u jmertel il-ġild, jispjega l-proċess tal-ħjūta bl-aktar ġild fin Ingliż. Tħaddet mal-għaġġiena mix-Xagħra, li tispjega kif ħobża titwieled mid-dqiq, tingħaġen u tinħadem sakemm issib ruħha fuq it-tilar, lesta biex tinħema. Tkellem mar-raħħala Żurriqija fuq kif iġġiżż in-nagħġa biex tħaffilha s-suf, fuq nagħġa żgħira li għad ma kellhiex ħaruf (għabura), u n-nagħġa li qatt ma kellha (ħawlija). Skopra kif ix-Xlukkajri jaħslu l-ħwejjeġ bl-ilma salmastru fil-Fawwara tal-Ħasselin, u sema’ kif tinħadem u titħejjet il-bizzilla f’Ta’ Sannat, skont il-bixra li l-lingwa tieħu f’kull post.

Dan il-materjal prezzjuż inżamm f’kaxxi li maż-żmien għoddhom intesew. Kien b’kumbinazzjoni li wara ħafna snin ir-reel-to-reels sabu ruħhom fl-istudio ta’ Anthony Baldacchino. U minn hemm, fuq l-inizzjattiva tal-Prof. Alexandra Vella, beda l-proċess biex il-materjal maħżun fihom jiġi ddiġitalizzat. Xejn ma kien faċli li l-kontenut tar-reel-to-reels l-antiki jinqaleb f’format diġitali. Illum, l-ilħna tal-imgħoddi f’dan il-format, ftit ftit qed jittellgħu fil-portal tar-riċerka, li d-Dipartiment tal-Malti se jniedi fix-xhur li ġejjin, ħalli jkunu aċċessibbli għall-istudjużi u għal kull min għandu interess fid-djaletti, is-snajja’ tradizzjonali, u b’mod ġenerali l-ħajja fl-ewwel snin ta’ wara l-Indipendenza. 

Bis-saħħa ta’ dan il-proġett, ikkoordinat mill-Prof. Alexandra Vella, il-Prof. Ray Fabri u Dr Michael Spagnol, dan il-felli tal-istorja tagħna jista’ jitgawda mill-pubbliku u jiġi studjat mir-riċerkaturi ħalli nifhmu aħjar il-qagħda lingwistika tant rikka fil-gżejjer żgħar tagħna. Għax dawn l-ilħna jsawru ħolqa f’katina li tixhed li, għalkemm minn fuqhom m’għaddewx aktar minn ħamsin sena, il-ħsejjes, ir-rakkonti, l-għerf u d-drawwiet li fihom inewlulna pinzellati minn ħajja li m’ilha xejn imma ilha ħafna.

Is-Siġġiewi – 1977
Iż-Żurrieq – 1966
L-Għarb – 1977
L-Għasri – 1964

Kelma Kelma


With a massive following of 25,000 people, Kelma Kelma is the Facebook page that has taken Malta by storm. From a simple collection of linguistic curiosities borne from one man’s love of the Maltese language, it has developed to become an unconventional but highly effective teaching tool. This is the journey of Kelma Kelma from the man behind the computer screen, Dr Michael Spagnol.

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