Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

  • Long shell life

    Baby Jesus in eggshell - Photo by Fiona VellaAlthough during the Christmas season, it is customary to see statues of baby Jesus in a manger or in a crib, in Candice Fava’s shop New EGGsperience, the holy child would be seen resting in a decorated eggshell.

    “I love to create unique hand-made objects and this craft of eggshell decoration has provided me with the opportunity to have my own niche market,” Fava explains.

    Fava was raised on a farm in Australia, where her family sold eggs. They had several clients but one particular client intrigued Fava since she regularly purchased a substantial quantity of eggs.

    “One day I decided to ask her why she always needed so many eggs and she promised that the next time she called at our farm, she would bring me a gift to show me. I felt deeply curious and I awaited her next visit with much anticipation. Eventually, she brought me a little jewel box adorned with lovely fabrics and accessories. I could not believe that she had actually made it with one of the eggs from our farm!”

    Xmas eggshell decoration (3) - Photo by Fiona VellaFava was so fascinated with this idea that she decided to learn this craft. At the farm, she had all the eggs that she required and in time she learnt how to clean them without breaking them. Soon, she was producing her own eggshell decorations.

    “The first item I made was a jewel box which I painted with bright nail polish. I was so delighted when I saw it ready! Today I realize that it wasn’t much but it is still very dear to me as it reminds me from where it all started.”

    Along the years, eggshell decoration became an integral part of Fava’s life. Which explains why she was surprised when she came over to Malta and realized that this craft was totally unknown on the island.

    “It was hard at first to find the necessary materials to work with. However, my husband Ivan helped me to locate some local farms which could provide me with eggs. He also assisted me in the cleaning and sterilization of the eggshells.”

    Eggshell carriage - Photo by Fiona VellaInitially she decorated eggshells for her personal enjoyment. Then she began to give them out as gifts to her friends.

    “My friends were delighted with these eggshell decorations since they had never seen anything like them before. Soon they were asking me to make some more creations for them so that they could give them as presents to others. It was only a matter of time until I confirmed that there was a demand for such products.”

    Ultimately, people’s positive reactions to her craft led her to open her own shop in Zabbar.

    Xmas eggshell decoration (5) - Photo by Fiona Vella“By then, I had produced so many various eggshell decorations that I had no difficulty to fill the shop with my creations. Each time that new clients come in, it is charming to see their incredulity that so many exquisite things can be made from common fragile eggshells.”

    Nowadays, the Favas have located foreign suppliers who are able to furnish them with quantities of ready-made cleaned and sterilized eggshells. Moreover, they have also managed to establish contacts with suppliers of other materials with which the eggshells are decorated.

    Candice and Ivan Fava at their shop - Photo by Fiona Vella“My husband supports me a lot and helps me to come out with new ideas. Along the years, he too became enthusiastic about this work and now he is able to make his own creations.”

    A wide range of differently decorated eggshells which are ideal as gifts for various occasions are displayed at their shop. However, a few of them are not for sale.

    “When we join forces, we create the best decorations,” the two agree. “The collaboration of ideas lead to exclusive objects which become difficult to part from. Some of them, such as the lamp shade, the handbag set and the sea vessel, are cherished objects and we have won prestigious awards for them at local national craft competitions. Such works provide us also with the opportunity to combine different materials and crafts like woodwork and eggshell decoration. Our imagination has no limit, however we are restrained with the eggshells’ curvatures, although we take that as part of the challenge.”

    Lamp shade - Photo by Fiona VellaEven though all of the creations may serve as decorations, some of them also have their own practical use, acting as exotic containers, wearable accessories or light fittings.

    “Besides selling our creations from my shop, I also participate in several fairs and exhibitions and therefore more people are getting to know about this craft. Presently I am also taking part in the program Niskata which airs on TVM. Yet there is still much more to do to create more awareness.”

    “It is great to see how far a simple hobby can take you. Little by little, all my family has become involved in this craft. In fact, my daughter is already coming up with her own designs and creations and my little son is showing interest too.”

    In these last years, Fava has also dedicated herself to teach this craft to all those who are interested, both children and adults. She has also furnished her shop with all the necessary materials including eggshells of various sizes, cut eggshells, acrylic paints, stands, bases and a multitude of other items.

    As Christmas time approaches, the two explore the possibility of new designs and ideas in order to come out with original creations which relate to this theme.

    Eggshell crib - Photo by Fiona Vella“We are always dreaming of what we are going to do next. We work with all sorts of eggshells, starting with the smallest ones of love-birds and parrots, and moving on to larger ones such as those of pigeons, quails, ducks, geese, emu, rhea and ostrich. The geese’s eggs are the most practical because of their size and shape. Other eggs are relished for their natural particular characteristics such as the blackish colour of the rhea eggs and the large shape and pearly shade of the ostrich eggs.”

    “Christmas brings a lot of joy and memories. This festive season opens up a whole new world to create related items with baby Jesus statues, cribs, angels, Father Christmas, reindeers, sparkles and a whole range of bright colours. We love to reflect the warm meaning of Christmas in our works.”

    2017.12.03 / no responses / Category: The Sunday Times - Articles

  • Christmas inspiration

    the-sculpture-of-baby-jesus-at-il-muzew-tal-bambini-bkara-photo-fiona-vella-1Thousands of baby Jesus statues begged for my attention during a visit at Il-Mużew tal-Bambini in Birkirkara. However, I felt mostly intrigued by a particular terracotta figure which looked completely different from the rest. Its face had captivatingly unique features and the rest of the body was very life like. Yet it was only when I met its creator, sculptor Chris Ebejer, that I understood its real value, since that baby Jesus was not just a statue but a singular work of art.

    “My baby Jesus creations are not popular statues that are meant for domestic use or simply to act as a representation of the son of God. They have an added value because they are sculptures and not just statues,” explained Chris when I met him at his studio in Mqabba.

    “When I do such works, my aim is not only to reproduce the tenderness of a baby but also to relay an artistic style and a distinct message. Such art pieces are not restricted just to the Christmas season but they can be cherished all throughout the year due to their artistic significance.”

    An unfinished terracotta sculpture of a toddler Jesus lay waiting on a workbench. I couldn’t help noticing some subtle facial similarities between this work and the other one that I had viewed before. I was curious to know whether a sculptor would have a specific image in mind of how Jesus should be represented.

    “Before starting to work on something, an artist needs to have a vision of what he intends to create. One wouldn’t picture the exact image in mind but there would already be an idea of the shape, the composition, and the layout of the figure. Details will not be clear but each artist will subconsciously compose some particular features which are typical of his style.”

    “I must say that the facial features of this figure were inspired by those of my nephew. When he was a baby and later on a toddler, I studied closely his facial characteristics in order to explore the difference that exists between such a young face and that of an adult. For example, I observed that a toddler’s forehead is large when compared to the rest of the face, the upper lip is usually protruding, the cheeks are chubby and the neck is fleshy.”

    The sculpted figure of Jesus looked quite human and earthly and I wondered whether such work involved a spiritual process as well?

    “Whenever I am creating a sculpture, my foremost thought is always art. I am not motivated by any religious intentions and I do not aspire to encourage faith or to have people praying in front of my work. I have to admit that the subject is irrelevant to me.”

    Nonetheless, although creativity and originality are always his primary goals, Chris revealed that there is a limit on how much one can move out of the religious figures’ codified facial characteristics which our culture has learnt to decipher and expect.

    “No one has any idea how Jesus actually looked  like, neither as a baby or a child, nor as an adult. Indeed, both his face and the way in which he is represented have changed considerably along the centuries. The belief that some images such as the Veil of the Veronica and the Shroud of Turin could be historically authentic has influenced very much the present impression of Jesus’s face. Once such images are portrayed over and over again and are accepted by society, their characteristics become codified and this will help people to recognize immediately the figure of Jesus. Certainly, as an artist, there are ways and means of how to be creative when dealing with such a significant figure. However, one must know his limits so as not to come out with a profane work.”

    In earlier times, when art could reach out to people more than books, especially due to widespread illiteracy, the Catholic Church often used symbols within artistic works to deliver its messages.

    “There were various symbols that were portrayed with baby Jesus. In Botticelli’s artwork Madonna of the Pomegranate, Jesus is holding a pomegranate in representation of his suffering and resurrection. On the other hand, in the Madonna of the Carnation by Leonardo da Vinci, Jesus is reaching out to a carnation which is the symbol of Passion.”

    sculptor-chris-ebejer-in-his-studio-in-mqabba-photo-marthese-ebejerChris pointed out to his sculpture of toddler Jesus where he had also included such symbols.

    “Although in this sculpture, Jesus might look just like any child, there are a number of clues which will hint to the viewer that there is more to it than that. In fact, the child in sitting on a humble box draped in cloth in allusion to when the babies of ancient royal families were placed on thrones. The young figure is holding a miniature cross in his hand and three nails lie down beneath him on the ground. All these objects, together with the boy’s meditative expression as he looks far out beyond his tender age, create an effect which suggests  that the child is already seeing his mission for the future.”

    As he continues with some final touches on this latest sculpture, Chris reveals that the autumn and wintery seasons tend to inspire him to create new works.

    “I am deeply influenced by the change of seasons and by the transformation which they breed in the coloured landscape. Being from the rural village of Qrendi, I am very attracted to nature and my senses are intensely attuned to it.  As the leaves start turning orangey red, melting in with the aroma of wet brown soil and the liquorish scent of carobs, I feel stimulated to think about Christmas and the birth and life of Jesus, and it is mainly during this period when I come up with new ideas for works with religious themes. Moreover, the earlier approach of night during these days entices me to stay more indoors and this provides me with much more time to work.”

    A look at some of his finished works that were in his studio indicated that this sculptor had a particular preference to terracotta.

    “I do love working with terracotta as besides being a natural medium, it also has a pleasant warm colour. It is also more fluid and softer to handle than other materials and so it allows me to work in greater tranquillity. The fact that terracotta has been in use since ancient times enhances also in me that sublime feeling that by utilising this medium, I am helping to keep this traditional technique alive.”

    Apart from baby Jesus sculptures, during this season, Chris tends also to come out with new nativity creations.

    “Tenderness and the love for the family are the main messages imbued in these works.”

    (This article was published in Christmas Times magazine issued with The Times of Malta dated 8th December 2016)

    2016.12.09 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • A Christmas Nursery

    Even as a young child, Paul Pace was very fond of baby Jesus statues. Probably because they reminded him of a number of significant familial moments. His grandma gave him a small wax statue of baby Jesus in order to ease down his sorrow after his father George had to leave for a long time to work with the Navy. On another occasion, his father surprised him when he bought him an expensive statue of baby Jesus that he had longed for, after he succeeded to win a lottery. Now, at 69, Paul owns a collection of more than 2000 of such statues which he has lovingly gathered in a museum that he called ‘Il-Mużew tal-Bambini’.

    DSCN1966His wife Mary shares his passion and she is always present to give him a hand in this museum which they have purchased together.

    “It is such a pleasure to see people getting emotional when they visit our museum. Some become very nostalgic as they remember their childhood. Others notice some statue which was similar to the one that their parents had, and they start recalling their memories. A number of visitors get inspired to buy a baby Jesus statue of their own, while some others decide to go home and search for their neglected antique statue which their grandma had left them,” Paul said.

    Since its inauguration in 2010, il-Mużew tal-Bambini has become quite renowned both with the local and the foreign public. Although it is available for viewing by appointment throughout the year, most of the visitors attend to this museum during the Christmas season.

    “There is always something new to see because we are continually adding to our collection. Even though by now, we have a problem with space, when we find a particular baby Jesus statue which we love, we just can’t help not to own it,” admitted Mary.

    Certainly, the museum is a wonder to behold. The provenance of the statues is worldwide, thereby providing a rich overview of the different cultures. Skin colour, facial characteristics, and posture of these statues vary accordingly.

    DSCN1949A delicate looking baby Jesus which was made in Malta, rests in a musical box and moves his eyes and hands.  A dark skinned baby Jesus made from wood in Tanzania looks exotic amongst the others.  A curly black-haired toddler Jesus, wearing the traditional costume of Perù, sits on a chair and weeps after stepping on a thorn, according to a local legend. A wooden statue from Betlehem shows Jesus as a boy dressed as a king and sitting on an elegant throne. A teenage Jesus from Atocia is also resting on a chair, but this time, he wears the clothes of a pilgrim and carries a rod. An intricately adorned statue of Jesus from Trapani is embellished with pomegranate for good luck.

    “Our interest in this aspect has led us to travel to countries which are related to the life of Jesus, and from which we knew that we could find such statues. Our visit to the Holy Land was an incredible experience which gave us the opportunity to walk in the same roads where Jesus lived. Moreover, it was an ideal country from where to acquire some beautiful statues for our collection,” remarked Paul.

    “When we visited Prague, we bought 42 different baby Jesus statues!” exclaimed Mary.

    DSCN1942They just had to, they explained, as they saw my startled reaction. This was because according to an old tradition, the statue of baby Jesus in Prague is dressed in different coloured clothes each day. Therefore, they were bound to purchase a number of statues which showed Jesus in several dresses. Nevertheless, not all the statues bought ended up in the museum, since some of these were presents for family members and friends.

    “Many of those who visit our museum are curious to know whether we can remember all our statues, which of course, we do. We can also recall all the places from where we have obtained these items. Each statue has an interesting story behind it and we love to share them with whoever’s interested to listen,” Paul said.

    I was all ears and I felt simply fascinated when their narrative started to pour in. One of these stories entailed how they managed to buy a statue of baby Jesus which belonged to St. Ġorġ Preca. Another was related to an excellent bargain which Mary made unknowingly, when she bought a statue for her husband for a low price, and then found out that it dated to the 18th century. I loved also the account relating to a particular container made of mica which was produced in Malta by a German prisoner of war during World War II, and was utilized to hold a statue of baby Jesus.

    DSCN19321“We have many antique statues but the oldest one that we know the date of goes back to 1730. The smallest statue is about 15mm long, whereas the largest one has a length of 80cms. The materials of these statues varies widely and include: stone, alabaster, marble, woods of different kinds, wax, ceramic, concrete, lava, straw, plastic, wool, and even bull’s horn,” Mary explained.

    Yet the strangest was yet to come…

    “One day, we had a statue which lost its synthetic hair and we decided to try to replace it with some hair of one of our daughters. The experiment succeeded and soon, we provided the hair to a number of other statues by trimming some hair from our other daughter and eventually also from that of our nephews,” smiled Paul as he pointed them out proudly.

    Each time that I observed the statues, I noticed a different one which I had not seen before. The collection looked literally endless, and yet each statue was unique. Whilst some of the statues showed simple features, mostly due to the artistic fashion of the time, others were quite elaborate and pretty. Yet there were also a number of outstanding characters which stood out from the rest.

    DSCN1937“The main aim of this museum is to share the sweetness of Christmas and the joy which is inherent in each statue of baby Jesus,” revealed the couple.

    However, this place offers much more than that since it nurtures love for one’s family, whilst it cherishes an appreciation for diversity. Undoubtedly, this collection is also an invaluable source for those who are interested to study the changes which took place along the years in the production of such precious artworks.

    Il-Mużew tal-Bambini which is located at 17, Triq Santa Tereża, Birkirkara, will be open for the public from Sunday, 13th December 2015 to Wednesday, 6th January 2016.

    Opening times: Monday to Saturday from 4:30pm – 8:00pm, Sundays and Public Holidays from 9:00am – noon and from 4:30pm – 8:00pm. For more information, one can call 21492111.

    (This article was published in CHRISTMAS TIMES Suppliment issued with The Times of Malta dated 8th December 2015)

    2015.12.08 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • A Traditional Crib

    The visit.JPGSearching for a place to stay.JPG

    Detail of the huge Caltagirone crib.JPG

    “The setting up of a crib during the Christmas season has become a worldwide tradition. However probably, few are aware that by doing this, they are reproducing a custom that was originated by St Francis D’Assisi in the 13th century,” told me Francesca Cannavò, the Curator of the Nativity Museum which is located in the crypt of St Augustine’s Church in Old Mint Street, Valletta.

    “The main aim of this museum is to promote a deeper understanding and meaning regarding the nativity of Jesus and how this sacred event has been represented artistically during all these years by various artists,” explained Andrea Consalvo Rifici, the marketing manager.

    Indeed, during these last months, the ambience of this huge crypt has been completely transformed into a landscape which instills the perception of being absorbed back in time, right to the period of this holy nativity.

    “We want the visitors to walk around this place and to meditate about what was happenning in the days before baby Jesus was born and also what took place soon after.”

    Various panels with interesting information accompany the visitors throughout this journey which takes them deep within the old crypt in search of the revelation of the Christmas story. Meanwhile, heavenly music engages the visitors and immerses them into the sanctity of this experience.

    “In the old days, many of the people were uneducated and so they could not read the scriptures. Therefore, the Church set up various plays and commissioned many paintings in order to create a visual narrative with which the people could comprehend certain episodes in Jesus’ life.”

    In fact, beautiful reproductions of renowned artistic works that portray the nativity scene compliment and enhance the significance of this museum, as the visitors can enjoy and absorb the different interpretations that were effected by remarkable painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, Tiziano, Rubens, Botticelli, Carvaggio, Fra Angelico, and Hugo van der Goes.

    “It is believed that these representations of the nativity have inspired St Francis of Assisi to compose the first crib which he set up in a cave. Eventually, this idea was so much appreciated by the people that they decided to produce their own cribs in order to possess the blessed nativity scene within their homes. As years passed, people continued to develop this concept by designing new ways of expressing this remarkable episode.”

    A circular room within this crypt has been selected to present a set of artistic scenes which manifest the main events that are relative to the birth of Jesus; such as that of the Annunciation, the dream of Joseph, Mary’s visit to a pregnant elder Elizabeth, the search to find a place for Mary to give birth and the hasty escape to Egypt.

    “These set ups have been designed in Sicily in order to decorate this museum. The figurines were made by Vincenzo Velardita in Caltagirone whereas the scenography was realized by Gigi Genovese in Catania. We tried to keep these scenes as simple as possible in order to reflect the modest nature that Jesus Himself chose for his own birthplace.”

    Certainly, the principal attraction in this nativity museum is the huge crib with its numerous mechanical figures.

    “This crib is the work of Salvatore Milazzo from Caltagirone. We are proud to say that it has been admired in several countries and that it has received various prestigious awards. This year, we decided to introduce it to Malta because we are aware that the Maltese people are deeply devoted to the nativity of Jesus. Moreover, we wanted to share our Sicilian culture with the Maltese people since there are many similarities between our culture and traditions.”

    Milazzo’s work is definitely a work of art as it embraces within it all the skill of the renowned Caltagirone masters of this trade. The forty square metre crib has been decorated with a typical Sicilian country lansdcape of the 1800s which includes also a number of workshops of trades which do not exist any longer.

    Meanwhile, this museum incorporates within it also a number of locally made cribs that were provided by members of Friends of the Crib (Malta).

    Interestingly, this nativity museum which has opened its doors for the public in November will not close after the Christmas season and it will remain available to visitors all throughout the year.

    “The concept behind the creation of this nativity museum in Malta is to heighten the experience of Valletta 2018 both to local and to foreign visitors, by blending together the culture of this island and that of Sicily.”

    (This article was published in CHRISTMAS TIMES Magazine which was issued with The Times of Malta dated 13th December 2014)

    2014.12.13 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • Far more than walking on a winter wonderland

    Going on a husky sleigh-ride in Santa's village.JPGEnjoying toboganning rides on slope.JPG

    Moving around on a tobogann.JPGGoing for a reindeer-sleigh ride.JPG

    We had always wished to spend Christmas in some foreign land in order to see how this event is celebrated in other countries. Ideally this place had to be similar to the ones that we saw on Christmas cards; that is with wooden log cabins, fire-places and much much snow.

    Eventually, a brilliant idea came to our mind! What if we went to visit Santa’s land itself in Lapland, Northern Finland?

    Although many of us have grown up to believe that Father Christmas is just a legend, my daughter and I are sure that he is real. Well, he comes to visit us each year and he always leaves a lovely present for Martina. So surely, after ten annual visits to our home, we decided that it would be nice of us to exchange the courteousy.

    That was how we found ourselves at Gatwick airport being led away from the usual crowded queues by a special officer who rang a bell in order to call for those whose destination was Ivalo airport.

    Soon, several families with excited children joined the group and off we went on a charter airplane which was waiting to take us to this magical land. Everything was superb from the start, even this flight which was completely dedicated to entertain the children with enjoyable games. Then, when we were approaching land, all the children turned to the airplane’s window in order to watch for Santa’s flying sleigh. We did not succeed to see it but deep beneath the fluffy white clouds, there appeared a strange landscape of dark land, remarkably patterned with plentiful shiny rivers and lakes. So that was how the Arctic Circle looked!

    Our airplane landed smoothly down at Ivalo’s minute airport in Lapland, North Finland and soon we found ourselves walking in the crunchy snow. Mischievous, brightly dressed elves slid out together with our luggage and greeted us with playful tricks, whilst a traditionally dressed Finnish Sami, who forms part of the indigenous people of this area, welcomed us to his land in the company of a large reindeer. A coach transferred us to the tourist resort in Saariselkä which was only 25 minutes away.

    Since in Saariselkä, the temperature goes down well beyond zero degrees, we had to pack a couple of cosy clothes in our luggage. However, on arrival, everyone was provided with a complimentary thermal outer-suit, along with woolen socks, snow boots, outer gloves and hats, in order to guarantee a comfortable stay since there the temperature could go down to -30 degrees celcius.

    There is a good choice of hotels wherein to spend this holiday: starting from Santa’s Kieppi which is built in the traditional Finnish style, and moving on to the modern style Santa’s Holiday Club which includes an indoor pool with waves and chutes. We chose to stay in Hotel Kieppi because we considered it to be more authentic. Its owner, Matti Välitalo, informed us that in Finnish, the word ‘kieppi’ referred to the burrow where animals hibernated during winter, and surely this place was warm and snug contrasting to the icy coldness outside.

    Between the beginning of December and the first days of January, Saariselkä experiences the polar night as the sun does not rise. However the place does not lie in total darkness since the light of the moon, the stars, and the magnificent Northern Lights are reflected by the snow, and therefore one can move around easily at whatever time. During this period, at about ten in the morning, the dusky blue sky turns into an unusual blend of silver and blue colours which is later imbued with different hues of blue and red, until at about three in the afternoon, when it starts getting dark again. This entire ambience felt strange at first but once we got used to it, it enhanced each and every moment and turned it into a unique Christmas experience. We really felt as if we had stepped into another world.

    Even the activities that we could do were extraordinary and it didn’t take very long to see the adults being transformed into joyful and happy children. It’s bound to be! For how can one resist the feeling of a true white Christmas whilst squishing or toboganning in the milky Arctic snow? We were provided with free toboganns from our hotel and Martina took the opportunity to be pulled all along the way. I have to admit that it was somewhat frightening at first because we had never experienced this sport. But when we saw very young children shooting down confidently, we walked up the small snowy hill and off we went. Oh my! It felt like flying! An amazing experience! Anyhow, we lost count how much rides we did.

    Each time we travelled by coach, our guides made their utmost in order to help us feel the Christmas spirit. Once more, we found the atmosphere quite captivating as we sang heartily a couple of old Christmas songs along with people coming from various countries around the world, under a sky packed with twinkling stars.

    However surely, the best moment of this holiday for each visitor, whether adult or young was the special visit to the village of Father Christmas in the Arctic Circle. Here, with activities ranging from ice fishing, toboganning, reindeer sleigh rides, snow hockey, skidoo rides, and an igloo bar, who can wish for more? Yet there was more! In fact, after providing us with the required instructions, we were offered to drive a pack of huskies in the snow. My husband controlled the huskies and my daughter and I huddled up in the sleigh wrapped up in reindeer skin. What a delight!

    Still, more followed since each family, at some point or another, was secretly and quickly hurried upon a snowmobile-sled in order to search for the elves who knew how to point the way to Santa’s log cabin which was craftily hidden in the icy woods. It was a really enthralling experience to enter into the warmth of Santa’s magical hut and to find him sitting in his huge wooden chair amid a multitude of colourful presents. Martina was dumbfounded as she noticed that Santa was holding and reading her own hand-written letter which she had sent him some days ago by post from Valletta! When she found some courage, she told him that many of her friends told her that he did not exist.

    “Well now you have seen that I do!” he told her warmly as he laughed heartily and gave her a beautiful teddy bear. Martina hugged Santa as if to check that she was not dreaming and she even kissed him on the cheek. Once our private meeting with Santa was over, we were taken back to the rest of the group but Martina was simply entranced by this experience.

    On Christmas day, we attended a gala dinner where we discovered that in Finland, ham is the Christmas food specialty. However we were treated to a bountiful meal of different meats and fish, together with a selection of pastries and delicious wild berries.

    We surely missed the company of our dear family members and the sweet presence of baby Jesus in his crib which was nowhere in sight in these locations. Yet in Saariselkä everything was designed to entertain visitors and one will absolutely not have time to feel a trace of sadness.

    We spent only four days in Santa’s Lapland but the surrealism of the place mystified the aspect of time and we felt as if we belonged there. Surely no other Christmas will ever match this one.

    (This article was published in the Travel Supplement of The Sunday Times of Malta dated 2nd November 2014)

    2014.11.02 / no responses / Category: The Sunday Times - Articles

  • THE NATIVITY IN MINIATURE

    When the last month of the year steals its way into our hearts, we find ourselves in a world of light, colours, dreams, hopes and Christmas… and nothing symbolises theNativity Scene - Close up Christmas spirit better than the nativity scene captured in a traditional crib. Fiona Vella went in search of two remarkable examples of this long-standing Maltese tradition.

    As December comes round, out come the boxes  loaded with colourful accessories and delights which were stored away the previous year: a disassembled Christmas tree, some intricate ornaments and a few old cherished cards.

    Yet nothing compares to the allure of a precious crib with its little figurines and the statuette of baby Jesus which needs to be warmed up with Ġulbiena, at least in a country with a strong Christian Road to the monasterytradition like Malta. The annual ritual of setting up the crib is fascinating, but what is this enigmatic fascination which draws us each year to recreate this nativity scene?  To unearth this riddle I decided to go back to our roots, seeking out two beautiful antique treasures which lie within our intriguing island.

    MDINA

    The first gem is situated deep in the heart of the medieval town of Mdina, shielded in the core of St Peter’s Monastery, the domicile of the Benedictine Cloistered Nuns.

    With the aid of Joseph Flask, a diligent writer about the life and history of the Benedictine Monastic Order, I was allowed to meet the Rev. Mother Abbess Sr. Maria Adeodata Testaferrata de Noto OSB who received me warmly and invited me to view the oldest known static crib in Malta.

    The monastery itself is a magnificent historic and architectural site, dating back to the 15th century. Nevertheless the experience of stepping inside a location which is customarily prohibited to The Mdina Criboutsiders’ eyes took that sense of magnificence one step further.

    Up the stairs and along the innermost corridors, lying dormant behind a wide glass case and heavy curtains was my ‘prize’, and I was overwhelmed with emotion as I beheld this rarely seen fine example of one of the highest Maltese traditions.

    No one knows who was its original creator or when it was built, but probably the crib’s first restoration took place in 1826, as the earliest painted signature G.B.GNew discovered initials indicates. A similar unspecified restorer enlarged the crib in 1846 and left a simple mark of G.G. A final revamp dates back to 1977, this time clearly signed by Giuseppe Sammut who painted and added the crib’s scenery.

    Incredibly, while we were exploring the crib, we chanced upon another signature which Joseph had never noticed before – a coarse reddish scribbling bearing the initials G.G and a not so clear G.I. Evidently the crib seems to hold even more challenges and clues for devotees to decipher.

    The crib is embedded with personal memories of several people. In fact, a closer glimpse at its figurines lying around theDifferent figurines unrefined landscape made of glued old sacks and newspapers, reveals that oddly most of the figures do not match each other, either in style, age or even size!  This effect was initiated by the nuns themselves when they resolved to bestow the original crib’s population with every relative statuette that came in their possession! Amusingly, more intense exploration discloses even extraneous insertions; such as the Greek classic statuette and an irrelevant building situated at the back. Peculiar as it might seem, this reality exudes a tender feeling as one realizes that the crib actually encompasses the love and memories of each nun that lived with it.

    The crib is in fact of somewhat crucial help to the cloistered nuns, helping them to evoke theColourful old figurine meaning behind the holy birth; a tangible item in a life withdrawn from the usual worldly pleasures, which constantly reminds them of the sweet joy of Christmas. Indeed, this very crib inspired the renowned short writings of the Blessed Maria Adeodata Pisani OSB who lived in the monastery for several years. And to this day, the crib continues to instigate the spirits of the other nuns when on Christmas Eve they celebrate a traditional procession which ends up in front of it.

    ŻEJTUN

    The other route to discovery led me to the quaint village of Żejtun, again to another convent but this time to see the oldest, large, Maltese mechanical crib, which dates back to 1945, a period whereinBishop Emmanuel Galea our island lay ravaged from the destruction of World War II. It was this devastation that inspired Mons. Emmanuel Galea to create a unique religious symbol as he saw that people desperately needed to rekindle their faith and hope of a better life.

    Together with his nephew Pawlu Pavia he devised a plan to build a large mechanical crib which could be motor-driven.Pawlu Pavia

    I found Pawlu, now 86,  residing in St Vincent De Paule’s residence. Despite his old age, he reconstructed the whole story with sharp clarity and also with a touch of melancholy.

    He remembers how some workers were brought in to build a platform made from random pieces of broken doors and windows. Moreover, three openings were cut in one of the room’s wall as the cribŻejtun crib had to represent three sections: what happened before the birth of Jesus Christ, the actual birth itself and what occurred thereafter.

    The fabrication of papier machè and the layout of the crib he made with the bishop, while he alone  was responsible for building the crib’s figurines from wood and iron wire. However the hardest taskThe presentation of Jesus in the temple was to find some ingenious way of motorizing the figurines’ movements and to actually interelate them at a time when resources were very few. Another difficulty was to surpass the dilemma of an unstable electric current. Incredibly he did all this by means of one single motor which he succeeded to find in a remote shop. Even more incredible is that after 65 years, the crib still functions with this same system!

    This journey also led me to Sister Pawlina Gauci, now 78,  who, together with the late Sr. Angela, had the responsibility of dressing the figures. Her three yearsSwor Pawlina Gauci missionary work in Persia (now Iran) aided her with good knowledge of the type of material to be used and one by one the figures were clothed with several samples of fabric which a number of shops had contributed.

    Both Pawlu and Sr. Pawlina recall the commotion that this crib raised when it was opened to the public for the first time during Christmas of 1947. Visitors came from all over Malta and there was such a big crowd that the police had to intervene to keep control of the situation!

    Now that Pawlu is retired, the crib passed into the care of his nephew Joseph Pavia,Joseph Pavia whose great dedication to it is no lesser than his uncle’s. In fact during the last years Joseph renovated the visitors’ room and included a very interesting documentary which recounts the whole story of this crib in five different languages.

    Remarkably, even this crib seems to bear the destiny to be associated with holiness as currently there is the process of the cause for canonization of its instigator, Mons. Emmanuel Galea.

    As I left the crib, I pondered about the dedication and devotion behind their creation. The endeavour, the ritual, the almost childish happiness to share a crib with others… all lead to an ancient dream Żejtun convent which St Francis of Assisi had foreseen a long time ago in the village of Greccio. For through its modesty, a crib reminds us that the spirit of Christmas is simple and that it is meant to reach out to our hearts and souls and bathe them in the joy of the birth of Jesus.

    (This article was published in FIRST magazine, Issue December 2010. FIRST magazine is delivered with The Malta Independent on Sunday)

    2010.12.16 / no responses / Category: Malta Independent on Sunday - First magazine