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Christmas in Gozo - The Ghost of Christmas Past and the Spirit of Present-day Christmas
Christmas Crib, a Presepju in Maltese
The First Christmas
The story started when Mary, a Holy Virgin without the stain of Original Sin was visited by the Archangel Gabriel who informed her that by the Power of the Holy Spirit she was to become the Mother of God. She was going to have a son whom she would call Jesus. He would be the saviour of all mankind. "Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb Jesus", the Angel of Lord said.
Mary, the innocent young girl was troubled and confused, but She readily accepted what was required of Her by the Lord God The Father Almighty.
The Angel of the Lord also visited Joseph, Mary's bethroted in a dream and told him about Mary and Baby Jesus. He told Joseph not to fear and to leave for Bethlehem together with Mary.
They travelled far, Mary sitting on a donkey and Joseph walking beside her. When they finally arrived in Bethlehem it was on a very cold winter's night. To make matters worse, the Inns were all full and they had to find shelter in a stable. That night Jesus was born, the Son of God lying in a manger with some straw for his bedding and warmed by the breath of a cow and a donkey.
The shepherds tending their flocks saw the night sky filled with angels singing "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" - Glory be to God and were visited by an angel who gave them the much awaited news about the birth of their Saviour. They all went to visit the cave and to adore Him.
King Herod who ruled in those days, heard of the Three Wise Men who had followed the bright star which was leading them to Jesus. He had also heard rumours of the birth of a King Of The Jews. Herod told the Wise Men to inform him of the whereabouts of the Cave where Jesus was born on their return so that he too could go to worship Him. But the Wise Men were warned by an angel of God and after their adoration and the presentation of their precious gifts of Gold, Incense and Myrrah the Maji took a different route to avoid speaking to Herod again.
Christmas in Gozo - The Joy of Christmas
Christmas brings joy to the hearts of young and old, but especially to young children. They await the arrival of Father Christmas or Sta Claus on the night of Christmas eve to bring them their presents. There is something mysterious about Christmas. From days before the 25th of December the seed of Joy, of merry-making and the feel-good factor is sown even in hearts on non-believers. We start preparing for the day, we send greeting-cards full of words of hope and love and we begin spending on presents, warm clothing, home decorations, food and alcohol, chocolates and other goodies.
Many people all over the world decorate their homes with festoons, green holly and red Christmas flowers. They put up a Christmas Tree with tiny twinkling lights and some even decorate the facades of their houses. Many others like to commemorate this great event by setting up a Christmas crib with Joseph and Mary and Baby Jesus, which is at it should be, because this is what Christmas is all about.
It is commendable to have a Christmas Dinner with all the family and hold parties and dancing and festivities and give and receive presents for this is a day of Joy for all the world. The Christian world rejoices because a Saviour is born to set them free from the chains of Sin and Satan.
Christmas in Gozo
In Gozo, the main streets of Victoria are decorated with festoons with thousands of twinkling lights giving the semblance of falling snow or shining stars. On Christmas eve a procession is held early in the evening with Baby Jesus in a manger carried by boys from the Museum* singing Christmas carols to the accompaniment of a small brass band. At one point, the procession stops and a young boy delivers a moving Sermon which he has learnt by heart.
*The Museum is a catholic institution recognized by the Church where young boys receive solid instruction in catechism and in the way of living as good christians and honest gentlemen. In fact many parents in Gozo insist on their children to attend Museum regularly.
The midnight mass is a much-awaited event in Victoria as well as in many other towns and villages in the Maltese islands. Many young people attend every year and it is a joy to see them all well-dressed in long dark coats and with a serious look on their faces. This event's popularity is increasing since it lends itself well to the all-night-out-programme of the younger generation. They do not have to wake up on Christmas morning to hear mass.
Carol singing at the St. George's Basilica starts at 11.30 presented by the resident Choir, the Laudate Pueri. Their sweet voices, especially while rendering "Silent Night" continue to add atmosphere to the subtly lighted holy place. Their singing also serves to summon the stragglers who need to hurry up if they want to find a seat. The church is so full that late comers very often have to remain standing all through the ceremony.
Christmas in Gozo - - Before Mass starts, the congregation listens spell-bound as a young altar-boy quickly unwinds his sermon and receives a good applause from the pews in the end. Mass is celebrated by the archpriest accompanied by several other priests and with the participation of the Laudate Pueri choir. The Mass takes close to an hour but everyone is so appreciative that one hardly notices.
All around the Islands one can visit many large cribs which are open to the public. Some are in Churches, some in the Band Clubs or youth clubs and others are in private houses as well. At Xaghra one can also see several artistic mechanized 'presepju' with falling rain and running water and all sorts of other gadgets.
At Gh'Sielem in Gozo a large scale Bethlehem Village has been open to the public for the past 6 years or so. It is spread over an area of 20000 sq mtrs of fields and rocky terrain and besides the Crib with real characters and live animals, it comprises a bakery, a carpenter's shop, a smithy, a water-mill and even a real Inn with 8 rooms for renting. The organizers make it point to add new features every year to make it more realistic and impressive.
Christmas in Gozo - Traditions
One of the customs in old-time Gozo was keeping a record of the weather for the 12 days preceding Christmas Day, from 13 to 24th December. The first day the 13th December is supposed to forecast the weather for the first month of the coming year, January. The second day is February and so on. It is part of our Folklore and is called the Rwiegel. Rwiegel is the plural of Riegla (Ree-glah) a measuring rod.
So incidentally, I am writing this today the 13th December and the weather was partly cloudy, somewhat cold and with a slight hint of a drizzle. So January's forecast is cold and probably without rain, which is bad for we haven't had rain since October. January and February are supposed to be our main rainfall months.
During this festive period which lasts at least till the first week of January, we have a special recipe for sweet honey rings which we call in Maltese "Qaghaq tal-Qastanija", another very old traditional custom.
Christmas in Gozo - - Another Christmas tradition is building or making the Christmas Crib which we call a 'presepju'. The first Christmas Crib was built by St. Francis of Assisi to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. The custom grew in popularity and gradually spread from Italy to all the world.
A Christmas Crib (how to make one) is usually composed of a large Cave for the Holy Family and other smaller caves for the shepherds and the flocks. When I was a young boy we used to build them in stone. We used to go to the countryside on our bikes equipped with a wooden or cardboard box to look for 'attractive' small rocks which could be easily positioned against each other to form the caves and the surrounding countryside.
We also collected fine sand from nearby caves which we called 'rina' (ree-nah) to use as flooring in the main crib and we used straw for the smaller shepherds' caves. We also gathered 'lehjet ix-xih' (old man's beard) from shadowy rubble walls to affix to our crib walls. This plant or fungus is greenish white and grows in a moist environment and with its longish hair-like petals gives the appearance of a long beard.
For the trees we used to gather wild thyme (saghtar) from the otherwise barren hill-top plateaus. This plant used to make our crib come alive with the semblance of green trees and its cool fragrance infiltrated into all the rooms. The wild thyme shrub is now protected and picking it is totally prohibited, which is a good thing.
Christmas in Gozo - - Then we bought some farmhouses made of thin cardboard and painted in bright colours. A windmill was a standard feature with its white sails contrasting well with the green wild thyme behind it. To complete the set, we hung a brightly coloured star from the ceiling right above the main cave.
The crib figurines (pasturi) we used to buy for pennies from an old man who kept shop near our house. He used to make them in clay and though they were very crude, everybody used to buy them because that was all we had. I remember the sheep used to have match-sticks for feet and were all painted white except for their pink mouth and black eyes.
A basic set of pasturi comprises Baby Jesus asleep in a manger, Holy Mary and St. Joseph kneeling beside Him, a cow and a donkey, an adorer, a crier (with his hand to his open mouth spreading the good news), an angel holding a banner with "Gloria In Excelsis Deo" painted across it, the 3 wise men (Magi), a sleeper, a shepherd and some sheep.
But there were more of course, a hunter, a fisherman, a miller carrying a white sack of flour on his head, someone ploughing a field, a woman drawing water from a well, a man carrying firewood, a man with a lighted lantern, a girl carrying a lamb slung across her shoulders and many others all brightly coloured and still with a strong smell of fresh oil paint.
Christmas in Gozo - -
After Christmas we had either to throw the rocks away or to find a place where to store them for the following year, which was something of a problem. Moreover our mothers did not look too kindly on our bringing rocks and sand and straw and shrubs into the house, so later we started doing the cribs in papier mache' (karta pesta in Maltese). These are more practical because they can be kept on a shelf in a garage from year to year.
This page edited on Jan 1st 2017.
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