Posts Tagged ‘crib’

  • THE SISTERS OF THE CRIB

    Madre Phyllis Agius“This place was much livelier when children were around, especially in Christmas,” reminisced 60-year-old Madre Phyllis Agius of Jesus of Nazareth Institute in Żejtun. Around forty years ago, when she became a nun, the institute catered for orphans, teenage girls with family problems, and Muslim refugees. Nowadays, the nuns have dwindled to only nine and the institute serves mainly as a night shelter for the elderly.

    “It was the need to take care of children which made me decide to become a nun. When I was a little girl, I noticed the institute’s orphans attending my same school in Żejtun and I hoped that one day, I would be able to give them all my love and support.”

    She was initially approached by a nun while she was participating in a raffle which was being held at the institute as part of the Christmas activities.

    “I visited the mechanical crib at this institute each year and like many others, I tried my luck at the raffle. On one of these days, I won the raffle but I had no idea which gift to choose. It was at that point that a nun gave me a pamphlet which read – Why not you? From then on, I began to consider becoming a nun.”

    The large mechanical crib which was opened for the public in 1947, was one of the main attractions which brought people to the institute.

    “People were simply amazed by this crib and its moving figurines. When it opened for the first time, crowds came from all over the island to see it. There were such long queues that people got restless waiting and the police had to be called in to calm the situation. By time, we became known as the sisters of the crib.”

    Il-presepju (1)“No entrance fee was charged to visit this crib but people gave us donations to support the needs of our institute. Both this crib and also the orphans drew the attention of several benefactors who helped us to live a simple but comfortable life.”

    Like Madre Phyllis, when I was young, I remember some of these young children who attended the primary school in Żejtun. They were always very smart and tidy.

    “Older nuns recall a time when there were around two hundred children at this institute. There were not as many children when I became a nun, and the last group who lived here around twelve years ago, consisted of just six children. Although the children lived a disciplined life, they were all very dear to us, and some of them are still in contact with us.”

    “Our children were always very busy during the Christmas season. Nuns trained them to participate in plays and also in the institute’s choir. A group of nuns who could play instruments organized a small orchestra which accompanied the choir. On Christmas eve, the Institute’s director would attend and he was always very pleased to see everyone having fun.”

    L-Isqof-Emmanuel-GaleaThe first director of this institute and orphanage was none other than Bishop Emmanuel Galea, the very person who came up with the idea to construct the large mechanical crib.

    “During the Christmas season, the children attended to many parties and they received several presents. Some of the children were also invited to spend the Christmas with families. It was such a happy time.”

    “One of the nuns, Sister Ursola, was an excellent pastry maker. The aroma of baking Christmas cakes and qagħaq tal-għasel was heavenly during those days. Much of these sweets were given to our benefactors as a sign of gratitude.”

    As no more children were left and fewer nuns joined the institute, life changed considerably. Now, most of the benfactors are gone and the elderly nuns have to rely on the help of friends and volunteers. Yet Christmas is still a cherished time.

    “Three weeks before Christmas, we start with the Advent season which prepares us for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus. This consists of teachings and readings during the daily mass that takes place at the institute’s church at 7.00am. Nine days before Christmas, we celebrate the novena which consists of readings and singing at the end of the mass.”

     The expectation for Christmas triggers also a number of traditions within the institute.

     “Volunteers come to help us to decorate the institute’s halls and rooms with cribs, baby Jesus statues, Christmas fathers and Christmas trees. One of the volunteers also takes care of growing vetch for us which is eventually used to decorate the institute’s church together with ponsiettas.”

    Joseph-Pavia - rd“Joseph Pavia, the nephew of Pawlu Pavia who constructed the mechanical crib, calls to check whether everything is fine with the crib and the figurines. In the meantime, we prepare the items for our Christmas bazaar from which we sell books, toys and crafts prepared by the nuns.”

    The day before Christmas eve, Madre Phyllis prepares her renowned chocolate drink which has become a favourite with parishioners.

    “My recipe consists of chunks of exquisite chocolate, drinking chocolate, baking chocolate, vanilla drops, sugar, and peel of oranges, lemons and mandarines. I melt and blend eveything together in two large cooking pots and leave the mixture to cook slowly.”

    “This chocolate drink and a piece of Christmas cake are then offered to all those who attend to the Christmas eve mass which is celebrated at the institute’s church at 8.00pm. Children are also given a present by Father Christmas.”

    The nuns spend Christmas day together at the institute.

    “We wake up at 5.45am to say our prayers. Then we have breakfast and at 7.00am we attend to mass. Afterwards, we fill the nuns’ Christmas stockings with small presents which mainly consist of chocolates since they love them. Some of us receive family visits while others welcome the public at our crib. At noon we have lunch and we pray again.”

    Istitut Gesu Nazzarenu - rd“After enjoying some rest, some of us stand again by the crib to receive the public. More people tend to come at this time, bringing along their families with them. Many people seek this annual opportunity to talk to us. It is pleasant to see that people still trust us and believe that we are a faster way to God,” she said as she smiled.

    Indeed, this is the time when people approach them to share their personal problems, seek advice, and ask for prayers. A good number of those attending give them donations to help with the needs of the institute.

    “Christmas day ends with more prayers and dinner. Then we gather together to watch tv while enjoying some sweets and a sip of vermouth. After all Christmas is about being with family and this is our family now.”

    The Institute of Jesus of Nazareth is located at St Gregory Street in Żejtun.

    This year, the mechanical crib will be open between 16th December 2018 and 6th January 2019. Opening hours: 9.30am – noon and 4.00pm – 7.00pm all week.

    (This feature was published in the Christmas Times issued with The Times of Malta on 8th December 2018)

    2018.12.08 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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