Butterfly balloons, Snow White, regal dress, fast food, techno, garish floats and bright sun. This is Carnival day in Valletta.
Techno, short skirts, jumping sailors, school girls, bright lights, big speakers, alcohol, burgers, sausages and stars. This is Carnival in Floriana at night.
Carnival in Valletta is widely perceived as being tame. Valletta’s partner in these seasonal celebrations is Gozo’s town, Nadur, which is considered to offer most authentic Carnival parties. Smaller events take place around the island but these are typically small scale periphery events. As a celebration Carnival is not new, in fact it precedes the arrival of the Knights to Malta and most likely precedes Christianity on the island. As such, similar to the origins of the festival’s Prinjolata, Malta’s Carnival celebrations seem to start nowhere. There is no clear date for why it started or where it comes from.
Due to close links with North Africa, Malta’s belief system and culture was heavily influenced by Egyptian and Arabic Culture. This is evidenced by artifacts that are a part of the Museum of Archeology’s unpublicized collection that were unearthed around Malta. This is one idea of many. Research into the origins of Carnival will bring you across articles such as this from suite101.com:
Such floats also rolled in Babylon, in honor of the God Marduk, and in Egypt, for Isis, the queen-goddess of life and light, who opens the year. Elements of this Isis-cult persevered in early Christianity (Isis was even connected to Mary). They point to Carnival’s nature as a celebration of the waning of winter, the return of a new year, and fertility.
The quote comes from an article by Katrien Vander Straeten and the floats that she talks about are the same as those that we see today. Note that during the British occupancy, the use of floats was banned for a period of time and this will have affected the way in which floats would have been used upon their reintroduction decades later.
In Christian history, it follows that the festival existed before the knights arrival in Malta. In 1530 when the Knights were granted the island of Malta by the King of Spain the festival was promoted and it’s popularity boomed. The use of masks is said to have been introduced to allow the knights to indulge in carnal activities though there is another proposition that appears. Namely that a great number of Christians were brought to the island and consequently festivities were themed to include masks so that people could celebrate together in an uninhibited manner. Despite this, it is possible that masks were all ready characteristic to the celebration as history suggests the event orientated around the fulfillment of carnal desires. In which case the masks would allow revelers a repose from their identity and their inhibitions.
It is quite easy to pass comment on Carnival’s connections with what are today the surreal and often grotesque. Though the infamy of Gozo’s festivities is worth thinking twice about. As a Christian celebration Carnival seems bizarre, the activities it promotes are quite unlike anything else the church suggests it has introduced. Another common suggestion for the roots of Carnival is that it was a Pagan festival, one that would celebrate Spring, Sun and Sex. But in a politically correct world this is quite in appropriate, and in a religiously conservative society such an idea is preposterous.
Vicki Ann Cremona has contributed writings of her research into Carnival in a number of publications (read: Two Hundred Years of colonial laughter in Malta). Her observations note that the modern day events have been shaped by the presence of the British forces in Malta. Particularly the introduction of Pantomime has played a key role in this cultural shaping. Other than Pantomime another key word that describes the occasion at Valletta is Modernism.
Carnival might be traditional but the customary presentation of prepubescent girls dancing to Pop music that is predominantly about female sexual objectification is arguably not. However the proceedings are curious displays of cultural identity. In particular, the contemporary identity of Carnival appears culturally young. If there was carnival music (circa 1400-1900), then it must have been live music, if there were dances then they must have been Maltese, if there was fancy dress then it must have been homemade. Today the music plays from speakers, the music is European and American, the dancing is mutually European and American, and the costumes are typically purchased from shops. The Maltese imagination and culture is clearly failing to make an appearance. Most saddening for the fact that it means that Western commercial values are taking precedence over Carnivals original objectives and the appearance of the event changes correspondingly.
Despite this lack of identity or heritage, the upbeat and casual Pop music blasting from expensive sound-systems at audiences who look on at young girls and boys dressed as dalmatians, dwarfs, burlesque performers and French Can-Can dancers, angels, super-power rangers. Is actually quite enjoyable. Only, you can’t take it seriously.
Arguably the most traditional aspect of this festival is the dear old Maltese lady, perched in her enclosed balcony, sat at the window. A mug of something in her hands. Two eyes over the window sill.