The Malta Independent 3 June 2020, Wednesday

Focus: Carnival - A brief history

Malta Independent Friday, 16 February 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

Malta this year celebrates yet another Carnival since the event was first organised and sanctioned 472 years ago in 1535 by the Knights of the Order of St John under the patronage of Grandmaster Pietro del Ponte – five years after the order took formal possession of the islands in 1530.

It has, however, been said that the origins of the Maltese Carnival trace as far back as the early 15th century.

Taking the form of a street parade celebration in which participants traditionally don grotesque masks, the yearly pre-Lenten celebration is said to have its roots in pre-Christian Pagan celebrations attached to the rites of spring, the chasing away of winter demons, fertility and the sowing of new crops.

The event is today purely a Catholic celebration, with Protestants having shunned its pageantry, and Malta celebrates its own Carnival over the next five days side-by-side with the other Carnivals across the Catholic world and alongside those of Rio de Janeiro, Venice and New Orleans.

Although Carnival has, to a large extent, become a secular event, the festivities lead up to the fasting of Lent. And while the etymology of the word itself is disputed, most linguistic scholars agree the word’s root lies either in the Latin or Italian languages.

In Latin, the combination of the words carnem (meat) and levare (to lighten or raise), it is argued, mean to remove, or stop eating, meat. The interpretation is linked to the practice of refraining from eating meat on Fridays during the 40 days of Lent.

It has also been argued the interpretation is nonsensical as Carnival was a time to indulge in meat since a period of abstinence follows the event. As such, an alternate etymology from the Italian carne (meat) and vale (valid), which would effectively reflect the fact that Catholics are allowed to eat meat up to the end of Carnival.

Another theory proposes the word is derived from the Latin carrus navalis – a Greek cart carrying a statue of the sun god Apollo as part of the annual celebrations in his honour.

In Malta, while Carnival is celebrated in a number of villages across the islands, the main festivities take place in Valletta, where King Carnival makes his annual appearance followed by a train of other floats. In the times of the knights, in fact, Valletta’s auberges were left open, lit up and wildly and colourfully decorated.

Malta’s Carnival, as in most other countries, is held during the week leading up to Ash Wednesday and ends the day before, on Shrove Tuesday – also known as Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday), by which time animal products such as fresh meats, eggs and butter needed to be used up before the Lenten period’s 40 days of fasting and sacrifice began.

Traditional Maltese Carnival dances include the parata, a sometimes comical re-enactment of the 1565 victory of the Knights of the Order of St John over the Turks, as well as an 18th century court dance known as il-Maltija.

In 1721 Grand Master Marc’Antonio Zondadari introduced the game of kukkanja. The game involved a crowd being assembled in Palace Square which, when the signal was given, scurried to for a collection of live animals, hams, sausages and other such fare concealed under the trees outside the old guard house. A finder’s keepers rule was applied and participants could take home as much plunder as they could collect and carry.

Under the knights, Carnival was the only time of year in which the Maltese were allowed to wear masks – a practice the Maltese are said to have embraced with enthusiasm, while under British rule, Malta’s Carnival was noted for its scathing satire, until it was outlawed in 1936.

Spectacular yes, satirical no

There is a lot more to Carnival than floats, fancy dress and prinjolata. But the future of Carnival itself could very well hang in the balance if issues such as workspace for float builders, more overseas promotion of the event and a revival of the integral satirical element are not addressed in the short term

The hundreds of empty seats in the stands lining Freedom Square, Valletta on Tuesday morning belied a frenzy of activity both behind the scenes and in the arena itself as organisers took in hand the final preparations for Carnival 2007.

And at the hub of the hive of activity was National Folklore Commission chairman George Zahra, directing cranes and trucks and continually answering phone calls and queries from workmen and promoters.

The commotion, however, merely marked the final stretch to the inception of this year’s fête and, as Mr Zahra is quick to point out, preparations have been ongoing regularly throughout the year.

But even as the clock was still ticking toward the inception of this year’s Carnival, at 6pm this evening, Mr Zahra is already looking toward the future of the event in Malta.

The key to ensuring the future success of Carnival, he stresses, lies in injecting an element of satire.

The use of satire at Carnival had been outlawed in 1936 and if Carnival is to survive and maintain its validity in today’s fast-paced, multi-media-orientated world, it needs to rekindle its more satirical elements, which are, at the end of the day, the real crowd-pullers.

Consider, for example, the satirical atmosphere of Gozo’s Nadur Carnival where participants can be seen taking jibes at all and sundry. Targets of Nadur’s satirical wits over recent years, to mention a mere handful, have been wardens, Osama Bin Laden, Tony Zarb and Günter Verheugen.

The same could be said for the yearly Manoel Theatre Christmas pantomime, where the real show stoppers are not the glitzy costumes in themselves, but rather the all-pervasive elements of parody, innuendos and double entendres satirising popular music, politicians and practically all elements of Maltese society.

“We have to change Carnival by bringing back satire,” Mr Zahra insisted. “What we have now is a grand spectacle, but with absolutely no satirical element as is the practice in other European countries.”

The Carnival’s organising committee plans to begin reintroducing satire to the event next year, but it will be a slow-going process that needs to be carried out in a gradual, staggered fashion.

As the law currently stands, Carnival activities are prevented from satirising religion, the armed forces and politicians – all of which are off limits to the prospective Carnival wit, but other public figures achieving fame or notoriety and falling outside the three criteria are, technically and as far as the law is concerned, fair game. As such, next year we could see, who knows, perhaps a parody of the Eurovision song contest or L-Ispjun contestants.

“What we are saying is that we won’t start with politicians, but we can start with other well-known personalities. That will certainly bring more people in to see who’s going to be parodied. I think that will add to the number of people coming to Valletta.

“As such, at least for the first year should not touch politicians, but instead we will start with people who are outside the law.”

Mr Zahra also called on the Malta Tourism Authority to promote the Carnival beyond Malta’s shores and warns that if the matter is not taken in hand, “Carnival could die”.

This year’s Valletta Carnival should also hold a number of new elements. For starters, two children’s carnivals will be held – one on Saturday and another on Monday. The Monday event, Mr Zahra notes, is being organised by the private sector – a direction carnival could be expected to head further into in the future, but always provided such activities remain under the control, and subject to the approval, of the Carnival organisers.

Big Carnival balls could also see a resurgence, with a costume ball being organised at Floriana’s Phoenicia Hotel, while the Ghaxaq carnival, which Mr Zahra describes as the only satirical Carnival in Malta, will be starting again.

In addition to the costumes and pageantry, a crucial element of any carnival is its floats. But, according to Mr Zahra, all it would take to ruin Carnival would be a couple days of inclement weather to destroy a year’s labour and effectively render Carnival redundant. Every year is a touch-and-go situation with the less-than-desirable February climate always threatening. Such weather considerations, in fact, had prompted the government, from the 1970s up to 1988 to delay the onset of Carnival until May.

Recent Carnivals have, in fact, been no strangers to weather-inspired trials and tribulations – but never to a worst-case-scenario extent.

“Float builders, as matters currently stand, are working out of what we call shacks in miserable, completely inappropriate conditions,” Mr Zahra commented. “Worst of all, since the workshops being used are so small the floats have to be built in individual smaller pieces, which are later assembled outside – leaving them exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the wind, rain and the cold.”

He added, “If there were to be very bad weather just before Carnival, the event simply would not happen – no floats, no Carnival. This, fortunately, has never really happened and while there have been mishaps here and there, Carnival has never been completely destroyed.”

While the issue, raised earlier this year, over heavy water and electricity bills previously paid by float builders has been solved by the government now picking up the tab, the government’s supply and offer to build workshops with ample space at Tal-Handaq has also proved problematic.

The main issue is the site’s sheer distance from Valletta, which presents a hurdle to the mainly casual float workforce, many of which are helpers from Valletta itself, which drops in to lend a hand after they are done with their day jobs or in between other daily activities. Many such helpers have said they would have to cut down on the time they contribute since finding the extra time with which to travel to the new location would prove excessively difficult. Only one float maker, in fact, is currently working at Tal-Handaq, while the rest have chosen to stick to their cramped workshops around the Valletta and Floriana area.

* * *

Weather forecast

With Carnival being a purely outdoors activity, its success every year hinges on the weather. With February being known for its cold temperatures, rains and strong winds, organisers, participants, spectators and particularly, float builders look to the skies with hope and anticipation on the five days of carnival.

Weather considerations had prompted the government to remove Carnival from the Lenten calendar in the early 1970s and opt instead for a May celebration. Maltese Carnival, however, was reverted to its traditional date once again in 1988.

As for this year’s weather forecast, one could have hoped for better but then again, it could have been much worse.

The Metrological Office, as of yesterday, had forecast temperatures ranging from highs of 17°C to lows of 10°C, mostly cloudy skies for the first three days with showers on Monday and Tuesday, and winds ranging from force three to force five.



High 16°C, Low 11°C


Mostly cloudy


Northwest force four to five, becoming north northwest force three to four.



High 17°C, Low 11°C


Partly cloudy


North force three, becoming east force four



High 16°C, Low 10°C


Partly cloudy


Southeast force four, becoming force five



High 15°C, Low 11°C




Southeast force five



High 15°C, Low 11°C




East force four

* * *

Carnival 2007 programme of events 16-20 February

Friday 16 – 6pm onwards

Dance competitions followed by the entrance of Section D, and Company floats at Carnival Enclosure

Enclosure tickets: Lm1.50

Saturday 17 – 9.30am onwards

Children’s Carnival activity including dancing, float defile and general merriment along Republic Street, Valletta

Enclosure tickets: Lm2

Saturday 17 – 3.30pm onwards

Dance competitions followed by the entrance of triumphal floats and bands at the Carnival enclosure.

Enclosure tickets:

Section A/E – Lm2.50;

Section B/C/D – Lm3

Sunday 18 – 2pm onwards

Carnival dance competition followed by the entrance of the Gran Defile at Carnival enclosure and along Valletta roads

Enclosure tickets:

Section A/E – Lm3;

Section B/C/D – Lm3.50.

Monday 19 – 6pm onwards

Dance competitions followed by the entrance of dancing companies floats at the Carnival enclosure

Enclosure tickets: Lm1.50

Tuesday 20 – 4pm onwards

Entrance of Gran Defile at the Carnival enclosure

Enclosure tickets: Lm1.50

6.30pm onwards

Gran Finale at St Anne’s Street, Floriana

Free of charge

Further ticket information available by emailing [email protected]

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