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Learning from Carnival in Malta


by Nataša Pantović

Carnival in the Middle Ages took not just a few days, but the period between Christmas and Lent. In those two months, of winter, when the most of the population rested from their usual hard agricultural work, populations celebrated.

The Roman Saturnalia, was a festival organised at the same time, with lots of food and drink, dress-up and parades. The social order was reversed and rules of behaviour were suspended, also a temporary King was crowned and everyone had to abide by his orders. Even today, participants elect a King Carnival.

Historically in Malta, this festival can be traced to the 1400s where we find the Universita’ issuing directives about the price of meat during carnival. 

With the arrival of the Grand Masters of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (1530-1798), Carnival was recorded in 1535. At that time the festival was all about knights entering various tournaments. 

Ancient Ritual King Carnival

The two festivals share features of masks, role reversals, temporary social equality, and permitted rule breaking.

Man dressed as women and women as men, meant that for the first time women can sing, dance, perform and officially leave their chambers (remember they were locked inside most of the times) disguised in male clothing. It was the custom during Carnival that the ruling class would be playfully mocked using masks and disguises.  The differences in classes (95% of peasants, 5% of the rulers) would have been regularly & annually dropped.

Many have tried to stop people from “breaking the rules”. The Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum:"small index of superstitious and pagan practices", drafted in 742 AC condemned the Carnival.

Pope Gregory the Great (590–604 AC) has dispatched missionaries to sanctify any mis-doing in Carnival customs

Artists, creatives, youth, used sexy clothing to symbolically drive out winter, and the officials warned “this is not a Christian, but a pagan ritual." Confession books from around 800 AC note of people dressed as an animal or old woman, even though this was considered a sin with no small penance

Gradually, authority began to realize that the desired result could not be achieved by banning Carnivals, so now they form an integral part of the Christian calendar.

Anti-Sematic use of this Ancient Festival

In 1466, the Catholic Church under Pope Paul II revived customs of the Saturnalia Carnival: Jews were forced to race naked through the streets of the city of Rome.

"Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators.", an eyewitness reports.

In the 1800 AC, as part of the yearly Saturnalia abuse of the Carnival in Rome, rabbis of the ghetto were forced to march through the city streets wearing foolish guise, jeered upon and pelted by a variety of missiles from the crowd. A petition of the Jewish community of Rome sent in 1836 to Pope Gregory XVI to stop the annual anti-semitic Saturnalia abuse got a negation: "It is not opportune to make any innovation."

The Carnival of Venice was, for a long time, the most famous Carnival (although Napoleon abolished it in 1797 and only in 1979 was the tradition restored).

From Italy, Carnival traditions spread to Spain, Portugal, and France. From Spain and Portugal, it spread with colonization to the Caribbean and Latin America.

In the United Kingdom, West Indian immigrants brought with them the traditions of Caribbean Carnival.

During the carnival days, Valletta hosts many carnival floats. These floats are massive cardboard structures, sometimes representing local political figures, depicting political satire, painted in an explosion of colours, they enter Valletta’s main entrance, then commence a slow parade through the streets. The “Knights” city, Maltese capital Valletta, turns into the City of Fools for the carnival days.

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