Posts Tagged ‘tradition’

  • Love is strange doctor

    card for bride and groomChoosing a unique white wedding dress, sending out elegant invitations to guests, being led down the aisle by one’s father, shamelessly removing the garter, tossing the colourful bouquet, and giving out souvenirs may be considered as universal marriage traditions. However the reality is far from that. Rituals and customs could vary greatly between cultures, religions and countries, ranging from the sweet and romantic, to the strange and bizarre and at times even to the shocking and outrageous.

    Ghost weddings – China

    Whereas a wedding is generally expected to be the culmination of a loving and living bride and groom, ghost weddings are still celebrated in some provinces of northern and central China such as Shanxi and Henan. Such weddings are based on a grisly 3000 year old tradition which recommends that the unmarried dead sould not be left alone in the afterlife, otherwise the deceased’s family might get cursed.

    Originally this ritual was strictly for the dead and it involved two unmarried dead people. A wedding ceremony was duly celebrated and the two were buried together in the groom’s grave. Mainly aimed for young unmarried men who worked in coal mining and often suffered fatalities, this custom provided the bereaved parents with the opportunity to help their sons find a soulmate and be at peace even after death. It must be said that traditionally, parents felt obliged to assist their sons to settle down in a marriage.

    Although this tradition is supposed to have ended, especially with the sale of corpses being outlawed in China in 2006, studies and police reports show that this ritual is more alive than ever. Worse than that, besides being practised secretely, this custom has mutated to a more appalling nature, leading to grave robberies and at times even murders. Prices for female corpses or human remains have increased considerably as parents are ready to carry the financial burden, no matter how difficult it might be.

    Fat farms for brides – Mauritania

    While many brides go on strict diets to lose weight before the wedding, in rural Mauritania, an attractive bride is a girl with stomach rolls, stretch marks and overlapping thighs. In this society, a thin girl is considered inferior and unappealing and her slim figure will bring shame to her family. An old tradition in this country, known as leblouh, ensures that girls are round and corpulent at their weddings by force feeding them from the tender age of 5.

    During the school holidays or in the rainy season, when milk is abundant, girls are sent to ‘fattening farms’ where they are constrained to eat by older women, their aunts or grandmothers. A typical daily intake for a six year old includes two kilos of pounded millet blended with two cups of butter, as well as 20 litres of camel’s milk. Refusal to eat all this food will lead to a subtle form of corporal punishment such as squeezing the girls’ toes between two sticks. Vomit has to be consumed again.

    Historians claim that this tradition dates back to pre-colonial times when Mauritania’s population consisted of nomad white Moor Arabs. At the time, a man was deemed wealthy and well respected if his wives could afford to sit still all day and leave the household chores to black slaves. This laziness led these women to gain weight and by time, being overweight became culturally acceptable and regarded as high class.

    Even though health campaigners are trying to eradicate this old tradition, the leblouh practice has seen a resurgence in recent years. A successful fattenning process will make a girl of 15 look 30, making it easier for her to get married. Sadly, this custom causes endless illnesses and health problems to these girls in later years.

    Cursed wives – India

    When searching for a girl to marry, one tends to be attracted by looks or a charming personality. Yet in India, a man has to watch out for more than that since a woman born under Mangal Dosha (a Hindu astrological combination under the influence of planet Mars) is believed to be cursed and after marriage, she might lead to his untimely death.

    Such women are known as Mangliks and are looked upon with fear in Hindu society. Their choice of spouse is very limited as they are clearly not regarded as ideal prospective matches in the arranged marriages which take place in this country.

    A remedy to break this curse is to marry a clay pot during the kumbh vivah ceremony. This function is just like a real Hindu wedding where the woman has to wear a wedding dress and jewelery along with a thread. A priest is invited to chant the mantra and a marriage celebration takes place between the woman and the pot. Once the wedding is over, the bride will change her clothes, remove the thread and tie it around the pot. Later, when no one is watching, the pot will be drowned in a pond or in a river, thereby releasing the woman from the curse and making her suitable to marry a man.

    Spitting on the bride – Kenya

    One of the most emotional moments in a wedding is the point when a father accompanies his daughter down the aisle, then removes her veil and kisses her on her cheek before handing her over to her future husband. Yet although similar emotions will be involved during a wedding celebration of the Maasai people in Kenya, the father of the bride will spit on her in order to bless her.

    Whereas spitting in many cultures is associated with disgrace and humiliation, in this tribe, this act is regarded to bring good luck and fortune. In fact, Maasai tribesmen will spit on their hands before greeting and shaking hands with elders and it is also customary for them to spit on newborns in order to avert any bad luck.

    During a Maasai wedding, the bride’s head is shaved and lamb fat and oil is applied on her head. After her father has spit on her head and breasts, she will leave with her husband and walk away without looking back since she is fearful that she might turn into stone.

     (This article was published in The Wedding Supplement issued with The Sunday Times of Malta dated 12th March 2017)

    2017.03.12 / no responses / Category: The Sunday Times - Articles

  • Take me to church

    “ ‘They have hit our church!’ cried a man as he stumbled down in the tunnel which was located under the Mall Garden. We were huddling in there for shelter together with many other people as the bombs came down over Floriana,” reminisced Pawlu Piscopo who was eight at the time.

    Bombed St Publius' church (Photo provided by Pawlu Piscopo)“At this horrible news, my father grabbed me and my brother by the hand and took us out of the tunnel and over to the granaries where a very sad spectacle awaited us. St Publius’ Church had suffered a direct hit. Its dome was gone and the area was surrounded in rubble. Thirteen people who were taking cover in the church’s crypt were killed and eleven more were injured. That was the blackest moment in the history of the parish church of Floriana: April 28, 1942 at 7:50am.”

    After their house had been bombed, Pawlu’s family were allowed to take some respite in a large residence which today houses the Floriana Local Council. Yet for four years, they lived mostly underground in this tunnel which probably saved their lives. They took with them only a few belongings and the most cherished items, including a statue of St Publius which dated back to 1928 and used to adorn the model altar that his father had constructed at home.

    “Most families in Malta had a model of an altar or a miniature church at home at the time.  Unfortunately, many of these had to be abandoned during the war and a good number of them were destroyed when the houses were bombed.”

    The craft of church model-making had been introduced to our islands by the Knights of St John back in the 16th century, and therefore its knowledge was a distinct tradition. However the adversity of war ravaged even this precious memory until eventually this craft was almost completely forgotten.

    The entrance to Pawlu's model of St Publius' chucrh (Photo provided by Pawlu Piscopo)“After the war, people tried to get on with their lives as best as they could. Shops started to open again but those that used to sell miniature items with which to decorate our religious models, dwindled down to almost none. Nevertheless, the passion for model-making was much engrained in our family and when I bought a miniature structure made of four columns and a dome from a man who was leaving Malta to go to live in Australia, my father Carmelo was inspired to use it as the foundation for a model of St Publius’ church,” explained Pawlu.

    Carmelo was a very skilled carpenter. He would go from time to time to have a look at the church and then go back to his model and construct an exact copy of the section that he had seen.

    “He used the material which was handy at the time, mostly cardboard, wood and gypsum. I helped him out too in order to build the whole church which included ten altars. Eventually, this model reached a huge size of three by four metres and we could walk in it and look above at the beautiful dome,” Pawlu said proudly.

    Once his father grew old, Pawlu continued with the work on this church which they had started back in the early 1960s. As he embellished this model, the wish to set up a group for model-makers in order to share this passion with them, burnt within him.

    Pawlu Piscopo at the exhibition (Photo - Fiona Vella)“On February 26, 1986 which happenned to be the tenth anniversary of my father’s demise, I discussed this idea with two of my friends, Raphael Micallef and Tony Terribile, who were very interested in this sector. We all agreed to do something in order to revive this craft and we sent out adverts in the newspapers to announce the set up of this group which we called Għaqda Dilettanti Mudelli ta’ Knejjes (Church Modelling Society). We were very happy when we received a great response from enthusiastic individuals all over Malta. Soon, a commitee was formed and on March 1986, we organized the first exhibition during the first two weeks of Lent wherein the members displayed the works that they had.”

    It was certainly a great satisfaction to see this society thrive and grow along the years, always adding up new members of various ages. Today, around 400 members form part of this group which operates from its premises at 37, East Street, Valletta.

    John Paul Buhagiar Smith, one of the youngest members of the society, decorating his model-altar (Photo - Fiona Vella)“This year we are delighted to celebrate the 30th anniversary from the establishment of this society,” Pawlu said. “The annual exhibition has been taking place each year. Besides offering the opportunity to showcase our members’ works, this event has served to help our members and the public which visits it, to meditate during the Lent period and to prepare for the Easter celebrations.”

    A bi-monthly magazine, Il-Knisja Tiegħi (My Church), which was also initiated by Pawlu, is marking its 30th anniversary too. Members have been writing features in it related to different aspects of religious folklore, thereby kindling even further interest in model-making.

    Once again this year, the society has organized this exhibition which saw the participation of several of its members. Exhibits varied and included small to large statues of the passion of Christ and Easter, statues of Blessed Mary and several saints, models of altars, church facades and whole churches made of different materials.

    Detail from Pawlu's model dome (1) (Photo provided by Pawlu Piscopo)“I hope that I’ll have enough strength to exhibit my large model of St Publius’ church,” revealed Pawlu at one point. “It takes me four weeks to set it up on a large platform and to connect the miniature chandeliers and light fittings to electricity. I am getting old now and such work is very tiring.”

    Pawlu has been exhibiting this model in a building besides the Floriana Cathecism Museum for many years now, during the feast of St Publius which takes place two weeks after Easter.

    “Many people come to visit my model and they are fascinated with it. Tourists take photos besides it and they ask me how I managed to construct it section by section and yet making it look as a whole. I tell them that there are lifetimes of passion invested within it and that it is imbued with a blend of religious meaning and local traditional skills and creativity.”

    At 82 years, Pawlu is serene and thankful to see the society which he has founded together with his friends strengthen itself and adding members to it.

    “I just wish that it will continue to flourish for very long,” smiled Pawlu as he looked contentedly around him in order to appreciate the beautiful displayed works of the society’s members.

    (This article was published in the Easter Supplement which was issued with The Times of Malta dated 21st March 2016)

    2016.03.21 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • The Chinese who remained in Malta

    Il-qabar ta' Xu Huizhong.JPG

    Il-President Anton Buttigieg qed jghaddi l-Midalja lill-Ambaxxatur tac-Cina f'Malta.JPGL-ex Ministru Reno Calleja qed jghaddi l-Midalja lill-armla tal-inginier Xu Huizhong.JPG

    Last Sunday, many of us went to visit the cemeteries which are located around our islands in order to pay our respects to our dead relatives and friends.

    Many of us took with them a beautiful bunch of coloured and fragrant flowers which we left on the cold tombs made of yellowish stone or of icy white or dark black marble. Apart from showing love and respect, this gesture seemed to try to inject life where there was not.

    Others have also dedicated some time to clean the tombs by removing the weeds or by changing an old photograph with a new one.

    Thousands of red candles were lit so that their humble flame might accompany the soft prayers that were said for the deads’ souls.

    Many people had tears in their eyes. Even those whom their relatives had died a long time ago but still feel emotional at this loss.

    I find these death rituals very interesting, particularly when I observe how society continues to keep dear to its heart those who have died; sometimes even by continuing to treat them as if they were still alive.

    Whilst I walked along the paths of the Addolorata cemetery, I could notice all these customs. A pang of sadness crept into my heart when I noticed some bare tombs whom no one seemed to have visited. However, a closer look at the dates written on these tombs indicated that probably those particular families had ended and therefore nobody remained to visit.

    The tombs of Xu Huizhong and Gu Yanzhao

    I arrived in front of the tombs which I went to visit: those of Xu Huizhong and Gu Yanzhao; two Chinese engineers who died in our country whilst they were working on Dock Number 6 in Malta. Xu had died accidentally whilst Gu was deceased due to an illness.

    Their photos looked at me and I greeted them in name of their country and in name of mine. As a sign of respect, I put a bunch of white and yellow chrysanthemums on their tombs according to Chinese tradition which symbolizes sadness and grief. Then, according to my culture, I prayed to God to give them eternal rest.

    I remember that when I asked some Chinese individuals regarding why these two persons had been buried in Malta and were not taken back to their country, they informed me that this had been their relatives’ decision. This is because, according to Chinese culture, these individuals had to be buried in the country for which they were working because that was the only way how they could rest in peace: for they had to be present on the same land when the project on which they were working was successfully finished.

    Notwithstanding this, I still wondered what these persons’ relatives might have felt when they had to allow those whom they had loved, to be buried in a foreign country, and so far away.

    An honorary medal of the Republic of Malta for engineer Xu Huizhong

    I continued to think about this and so I decided to talk to ex-Labour Minister, Reno Calleja, who in 1979 was sent by Malta Prime Minister, Duminku Mintoff in order to present an Honorary Award of the Republic of Malta to the family of engineer Xu Huizhong. This honour was given to this man after he died tragically on 16th March 1979 whilst he was working at the construction of a new dock in our country.

    “That was a day which I will never forget!” revealed Calleja as soon as we started to discuss this matter. “More than that, I must say that personally, I consider that moment as the most salient one in my political career. I cherish it that much because on that day, I felt that I was becoming part of my country’s history; where Malta was presenting a very significant award to a foreign worker after his death, because he had lost his life whilst he was helping our country.”

    An agreement between Malta and China

    Calleja remembers clearly that period when China had agreed to help our country to regain its economic strength.

    “In those years, even China was a relatively poor country but it chose to help Malta all the same. It is during such moments that one can see the true friendship of a country: when it helps you in times when it is not so strong itself,” insisted Calleja.

    “The wise decision that Mintoff had made, when in 1972 he visited China with a Maltese delegation in order to meet Mao Zedong, after Nixon had did so too about a month before, was very much appreciated. And thanks to this choice, the Maltese people are still enjoying the benefit of this friendship, now that China has become a very rich country.”

    Many Chinese workers help in the construction of Dock Number 6

    “Apart from giving us financial support, the Chinese people helped us a lot by sending us many technical workers in order to attend to various important projects in Malta, including the construction of Dock Number 6,” Calleja continued to explain.

    “These Chinese workers have worked along with the Maltese labourers and our people got enriched in the principles of work as they learnt about the Chinese culture from these people. It was a culture of a people of great humility with vast enterprise together with a devotional sense of duty towards their own country. The enthusiasm shown by the Chinese workers as they worked with quality and precision, even when they were doing this for another country, inspired the Maltese to behave like them. And if the Chinese labourers were working with much dedication in order to make their country proud, the Maltese labourers were getting busy so that their country would be thankful to them,” Calleja said.

    “When Dock Number 6 was ready, I attended to the opening ceremony and I swear that I noticed many workers cry when they saw Mintoff’s face alight with satisfaction for the good job that everyone had made.”

    Reno Calleja goes to China in order to present the Medal

    Unfortunately, this fantastic narrative has also its negative side; including the instance of the death of engineer Xu.

    “In 1979, I was invited to visit China in order to represent the Malta-China Friendship Society. When I advised the Prime Minister about this, he requested me to go to China in April because he had something in mind,” remembered Calleja.

    “After a fortnight, Mintoff informed me that he had decided to give a Medal of the Republic of Malta on an honorary basis after his death to engineer Xu Huizhong and I was recommended to take it with me on my visit to China. Soon ex-President of Malta, Anton Buttigieg, organized a ceremony wherein he invited the ex-Ambassador of China in Malta, as a representative of the Government of the People’s Republic of China in order to present him with this medal. Then this medal was handed to me and I took it with me to China.”

    Here, Calleja showed me some photographs of those distinguished moments.

    “A very big ceremony was organized at the great Congress Hall in Shanghai in order to present this medal to engineer Xu’s family. For this event, I prepared a speech in Maltese which was translated in Chinese by a Maltese student. This student was Clifford Borg-Marks whom today is the Ambassador of Malta in China.”

    “During this ceremony, I had the privilege to meet engineer Xu’s widow and his children who all appreciated very much this honourable award that our country had given them. However, I can never forget the sad face of his widow who thanked me respectfully and said nothing more.”

    From then on, Calleja has kept in contact with Xu’s family.

    “Regrettably, a year after I met her, Xu’s widow died of grief. Yet her children kept in contact with me and they came to Malta in order to visit their father’s grave. Now, Xu’s grand-daughter has informed me that when she grows up, she would like to become an engineer like her grandpa.”

    Chinese traditions

    An interesting fact is that the Chinese people do not celebrate the death rituals during our same period. Furthermore, they have more than one ceremony related to paying respect to their dead.

    Qingming Festival

    Among these traditions, there is the Qingming Festival or Tomb Sweeping Day. This festival takes place on the 4th or the 5th April, according to the traditional lunar calendar.

    During this festival, the people remember and honour their ancestors by praying, cleaning tombs, re-painting calligraphy on tombs, burning incense or offering food, tea, drinks and other accessories on the tombs. Moreover, on this day, some people may carry willow branches with them or hang them on their doors in order to ward off the evil spirits which may roam around on Qingming.

    Since the Qingming takes place with the beginning of the Spring season, these celebrations usually include also family outings and kite flying. Some farmers start ploughing their fields on this day.

    The Ghost Festival

    During this festival which takes place in August, people will pay respects to all deceased whether young or old. Some of the activities which take place during the Qingming are also undertaken throughout the Ghost Festival; including the offering of food and the burning of incense.

    Other celebrations could include the releasing of miniature paper boats and lanterns on water. This ritual is intended to direct the lost ghosts and spirits to their resting places as some people believe that on this day, the deceased will visit the living.

    (This article is a translation of the Maltese original version which was published in the series KOBOR IL-MALTI (Part 25) in Torċa dated 9th November 2014)

    2014.11.09 / no responses / Category: Torca - Features & Articles

  • Keeping the faith: ex-voto paintings

    Guzeppi Theuma with ex-voto in Zabbar Sanctuary Museum Carmen Axiaq with her ex-voto

    The oldest undated maritime ex-voto in Zabbar Sanctuary Museum  Ex-voto in Zabbar Sanctuary Museum showing fishermen in distress after being toppled in the sea by huge fish (photo by Guzeppi Theuma)

    In the old days, the sea played a prominent role in peoples’ lives, especially to island inhabitants. It was a source of livelihood for fishermen, a fortuitous space for pirates, a bridge to other countries for travellers, merchants and diplomats, and a channel for soldiers from which to attack the enemy during war.

    People were often moving on the sea on various types of vessels, constantly aware of the risk that this involved. They feared corsair attacks and the aggression of unknown dangerous species which could lurk in the waters’ depths. Yet none was worse than the actual possibility of experiencing a terrible storm where the sea turned into a formidable voracious colossus which could engulf whatever dared to be present during its deadly rage.

    Meanwhile, it was a world where people in jeopardy were generally left to deal with their own fate, and ironically it was often faith which led to their survival. Historical sources describe how people created ingenious ways of dealing with these dangers by formulating different methods to guarantee a safer voyage, habitually intermingling religion with superstition. One of these practices in Malta involved the production of sacred coins which could be thrown into the sea to calm down the troubled waters. Indeed, sailors were urged to buy these coins which were made out of blessed white candle, a day before Easter, since failure to do so was believed to attract dreadful bad luck. On the other hand, local fishermen are known to have concocted a secret prayer which only the eldest of them knew and which only they could recite in order to shield their boat against the threat of bad weather.

    Although hundreds of years have passed from these experiences, nowadays we still have the opportunity to witness the ordeal that our ancestors have gone through whilst being out at sea. Many of these testimonies are still present among us in the form of ex-voto paintings wherein devoted people have illustrated the eventful moments when they were about to die and their faith saved them. Sadly, though we have lost many of these ex-voto along the years, mainly due to improper storage and conservation methods, we still find various examples in numerous chapels, churches, sanctuaries and museums around our islands. Among these, one finds 183 maritime ex-voto in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Tal-Ħerba in Birkirkara, and another 64 in the sanctuary of Our Lady in Mellieħa.

    Another interesting collection of such ex-voto is located in the Żabbar Sanctuary Museum. Unfortunately, from the original assortment of 300 maritime ex-voto, today only 85 remain. However, as Ġużeppi Theuma, the Secretary of the Żabbar Sanctuary Museum Commission has informed me, this museum is proud to possess the oldest maritime ex-voto on our islands which as yet is still undated. The next dated ex-voto in this collection goes back to 1631, as the information written on the painting clearly shows. Moreover, this particular ex-voto manifests the full interpretation of the initials V.F.G.A. which generally accompanies several of these paintings. These letters stand for Votum Fecit et Gratiam Accepit which translate in ‘a promise was made and the grace was given’.

    Certainly, these ex-voto vary in style and artistry, since they cover various periods of time but also because they were donated by people from different levels of society wherein not all could afford to engage the best painters. Indeed, the acute details that one can observe in some of these works provide valuable information regarding the different type of vessels that were used along the years. Nevertheless all the ex-voto relate the same basic instinctive tendency of humans to turn to faith and to prayers especially when everything seems to be lost, and none other could help. An intriguing observation is that even when being on foreign seas, other than the Mediterranean and therefore far away from the mother-country, Maltese people and also the Knights of the Order which were based on our islands, generally directed their prayers to Our Lady, and particularly to one which they believed mostly in. In fact, this holy entity is clearly displayed in each of the ex-voto in order to show the viewers to whom the donator had prayed whilst being in trouble and who has saved his life. This act was meant as a thanksgiving but it was also intended to act as proof of the miraculous power of Our Lady and therefore to increase faith towards her.

    Although the tradition of donating ex-voto has almost died out, it is interesting to note that this custom is still being practiced in our country. In fact, the most recent maritime ex-voto in the Żabbar Sanctuary Museum was donated by Carmen Axiaq on the 21st September 2012. Eager to understand the thought behind this act, I met Carmen at the museum wherein she explained to me the miserable and painful moments that she and her family have gone through when her husband Mario was lost at sea for two days after he got disoriented in the fog whilst fishing. As the search went on and days passed, the possibility of finding him alive started to fade and Carmen and her family were left with no hope except to turn to Our Lady and supplicate her intervention to assist Mario. While her daughter went on Dingli cliffs shouting out her father’s name in the fervent wish to do something to help, Carmen turned to Our Lady of Graces of the Żabbar Sanctuary and she asked her to use one of the twelve stars with which she is blessed in order to enlighten the way so that her husband could come back. Thankfully, Mario was found in time by the authorities and he was brought back to land safely. The family was overwhelmed with happiness but they did not forget who had helped them during their distress. Hence, together they composed an ex-voto wherein they narrated their story and adorned it with photos and hand-made decorations, so that whoever saw it could be reminded of the miracolous potential of prayer and of the greatness of Our Lady.

    (This article was published in the Shipping and Logistics Supplement of the Times of Malta dated 5th March 2014)

    2014.03.05 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • MINIATURE CHURCH DEVOTION

    As several bombs were let loose on our islands during the attacks of World War II, their destructive effects threatened more than human lives and buildings. They put at peril our heritage, jeopardizing the roots of our people and the future of our country.

    Raphael Micallef in front of old model made by Manuel PsailaRaphael Micallef, now 82, still recalls the terror felt by the people as the shrill of the air-raid sirens urged them to leave their houses and run for shelters. As an inhabitant of the capital city, he saw his town being shattered to pieces, the damage claiming even unique treasures such as the Chapel of Bones which used to be so popular both with the locals and the tourists. People huddled together in shelters and prayed for their own safety but they also implored for their houses to be spared as these nested within them all their possessions, memories of loved ones, and valuable objects which had been passed on from generation to generation.

    “Valletta and Cottonera suffered some of the severest attacks. Unfortunately within these areas one could find the best examples of church models, many of which had been inherited over many years. Sadly most of them had to be abandoned during the war and almost all of them ended up buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings.”

    The craft of church model-making had been introduced to our islands by the Knights of St John back in the 16th century, and therefore it’s knowledge was a distinct tradition. However the adversity of war  ravaged even this ancient memory until eventually this craft was almost completely forgotten.

    In 1986, this dire situation inspired Raphael, who was an avid enthusiast in church model-making, to make an effort to revive this craft. Together with his friends Tony Terribile and Paul Piscopo, he ventured to initiate an association under the name of Għaqda Dilettanti Mudelli ta’ Knejjes which aimed to instill interest, knowhow and craftsmanship in the art of church model-making. The first president of the association was Guido Lanfranco.

    Simon Mercieca with his church model“After 26 years, I am proud to say that now we have our own premises at 37 East Street, Valletta. Although it is a small place, our 400 members meet keenly under its humble roof in order to attend to the regular activities that we organize. Members’ ages differ greatly; starting from young children of 7 and going up to elderly individuals over 90. Everybody is welcome in our group and together we learn and discuss new ideas of how to enrich this cultural tradition. Each of the members has the opportunity to explore his skills and to enhance them further both through the interaction with other members and also under the guidance of craftsmen and historians who are frequently invited to our premises. Many members have built their own church models, some of which one can even walk through – a popular model is that of Simon Mercieca which is often open to the public for viewing. Others have opted to produce statues and accessories which are used in the church models. Most of the members succeed in producing marvellous works, sometimes using common objects and transforming them into intricate decorations which adorne the models.”

    Each year, during the Lenten period, the association organizes an exhibition with some of the works of the members, both to give them the opportunity to share their skill with others and also to attract the public to this old tradition.

    “Our association is deeply cherished by its members. In fact some of them have honoured us by donating us prestigious works which belonged to them or to their families. It is a great privilege to possess a number of the few lucky survivors of war which managed to make it, as their owners lovingly took them along with them to safer areas.”

    100 year old model of a niche worked out of quillingRaphael showed me some of these examples, including an elegant limestone church facade which was designed by Manuel Psaila between 1935 and 1940, and a delicate niche produced out of quilling which dates back to more than 100 years. I was thankful to Raphael for having shared with me this experience. His calm and serene smile was full of pride as his dream of giving the life back to a part of our culture was fulfilled. In fact the association’s work has succeeded to reach much further grounds than any of the members could ever have aspired for, when in 1994, Joseph Sciberras ended up winning a place in the Guinness Book of Records for his church model which was made out of more than 3 million used up matchsticks!

    I met Joseph Sciberras, now 93, in his son’s home in Attard. Sitting cosily near his bird pet who sung cheerfully at his side, Joseph told me the story of his model which has given him so much satisfaction in his life.

    “I was an electrician by trade but during the war I was engaged as a soldier. I remember vividly a particular day when I was at work in Delimara and came to know that Floriana, where I lived, had just been badly hit by bomb attacks. I was desperate to see whether my family was safe and whether our house was damaged, and my superior allowed me to leave. I walked right back to Floriana there and then, and luckily both my family and my house were safe. The enemy used to target his attacks from the Floriana parish church and bomb throughout. We lived nearby and one day our house did fall victim to these attacks, alas like the church which did too anyway.

    Joseph Sciberras with his model of Floriana parish churchYears passed and both our houses and the Floriana parish church were rebuilt. I used to like to observe the facade of our beloved church and when I became a pensioner, I decided to start building an exact model of it. I chose to construct it out of used up matchsticks. Day after day, I worked on my model, constantly taking measures and designing the acute details of the facade.

    When my friends who most of them worked at the Dockyards got to know what I was doing, they started to collect used mathsticks for me. Then when I exhibited my first model to the public, these matchsticks began to arrive from different areas of Malta! I had so many in hand that I ended up doing all the parish church inside out, until eventually the model measured 2 metres by 2 metres with a height of a further 1.5 metres.

    Joseph Sciberras showing the Guiness Book of RecordsPeople were totally mesmerized by my model and many, including several tourists, even hugged me when they noticed all the details and work that I had put into my work. It was during one of these exhibitions when some foreigners entered to view my model. I could not be more lucky as these were officials of the Guinness Book of Records and as they studied and measured my model, they informed me that I had succeeded to break the record of the previous winner matchstick model! Soon a certificate arrived together with my inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records.” Spiritedly Joseph showed me his model church displayed on the pages of this famous book. He felt very satisfied that his hard work which took so many years to do was given such an acknowledgement.

    “Ultimately this model became part of my life as I have dedicated much of my love and my time to it. In return it gave me happinness as I saw people admiring it and appreciating my skill and patience. I have taken good care of it all along these years and my final wish is to donate my model to our National Museum of Etnography wherein it could be enjoyed by the public in reminiscence of me and of this ancient cultural tradition. I feel sad to leave it behind me but one cannot live forever, can he?”

    Francis Sciberras showing me his father's workI could not resist the invitation of Francis, Joseph’s son, to visit the workshop of his father in Floriana wherein this model was stored. Humorously Francis indicated the name of the place “Sulfarina” (matchstick). “Interestingly our family was originally known as “Taċ-Ċomb” (of lead) but today, because of my father’s model, everyone knows us as “Tas-Sulfarini” (of the matchsticks). Notwithstanding that my father has stopped working now, I still find packets full of used matchsticks which people leave behind his door.”

    We went into the small building which was totally engulfed by the huge model of the Floriana parish church and by other of Joseph’s works, all made of matchsticks. With some difficulty, Francis managed to find his way through the multitude of wires which his father had included in the model in order to light up the church.

    Section of the model of Floriana parish church Now I could observe what Joseph had talked about…. the millions of matchsticks, each one placed or thwarted to fit into the shape that he had designed for them…. the facade, the dome, the walls, the columns, the niches, the floor, the minute chairs. There were also small silver apostles which Francis had made for his father to place on the altar. Miniature gorgeous chandeliers made up of common scrap hung beautifully along the flowing arches. It was all set up and ready as if inviting people to go inside.

    I gazed inside the model church, my eyes resting and enjoying every detail whilst I slowly understood what this all means… Within this modest model lied the admirable representation of our local skills together with the ability of our people to prevail even through the hardest times.

    For further information about the Għaqda Dilettanti Mudelli ta’ Knejjes, one can access their website www.freewebs.com/ghaqda_dilettanti_knejjes or join their facebook page.

    (Note: An edited version of this article was published in FIRST magazine Issue April 2012. A pdf version of the published article is available on this website under the title MINIATURE CHURCH DEVOTION).

    2012.04.15 / no responses / Category: Malta Independent on Sunday - First magazine

  • 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

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