What Went Wrong With Our Feasts? A Personal View

Fr Geoffrey G Attard


Having been born in Malta at the end of the seventies in a traditionally Catholic family in a relatively traditional environment makes it difficult for me to write about the phenomenon of the titular feast without being biased. Ideally, to write on the subject of our feasts in an objective way, one should look at them from the outside, rather than from within. Notwithstanding, I still wish to comment on the issue since it is a theme that continues to interest many readers and prompt writers to conduct fresh research.


With this reality in my background, I would like to reflect upon the reality of our feasts. I have in mind the titular feasts which are celebrated during the summer months beginning in April and spanning the hot months until the schools open up again for a new scholastic year. There is much money, energy and goodwill put into our titular feasts – so much so that they will continue to be the subject of books, essays, studies, articles and short reflections from time to time: there will never be an end to such discussions.

The issue is not whether or not feasts will continue to be discussed but rather where they will lead us within a decade or so from now. At this point, what clearly comes to mind is Jeremy Boissevain’s one-time unfulfilled prophecy that feasts would diminish in their importance. A quotation from an article published last year states that Boissevain “had predicted that, as a consequence of local communities becoming more outward-looking and mobile, village feast rivalries would become a chapter of the past”. With the late Dutch professor’s assertion in mind, it is safe to say that whatever is said or discussed about feasts from this point onward is not aimed at damaging or destroying them but rather to look at their roots and reflect upon why they have gained such importance in our local communities.


A product of political manoeuvre

In his researched article The Maltese Festa – a Historical and Cultural Perspective (The Maltese Village Festa. A Traditional Yearly Ritual edited by Godfrey Farrugia, photography by Patrick J. Fenech, Malta 2016) Professor Dr Carmel Cassar argues that: “The role of the village festa gained ground especially after the appearance of the band clubs which have proved to be the mainstay of the festa institution ever since.” A simple definition of the term ‘mainstay’ is ‘someone or something on which something else is based or relies’. This is the perfect definition for the role that band clubs play in the making of the local titular feast so much so that Professor Cassar’s statement is, in my opinion, the parola chiave – as the Italians would say – of the entire section that deals with the festa under British rule.

Our forefathers may have hated colonial rule, and worked hard to obtain a significant constitution, self-government and eventually independence, but I do not think for one moment that they were aware at the time that the creation and promotion of band clubs during British colonial rule was one of the subtle manoeuvres that took place in order to make the divide et imperat epitaph a reality in our islands. The British did not introduce band clubs in our towns and villages merely to help the local population find a way of enjoying themselves. Behind this reality, there was a less attractive one: they wanted to distract the Maltese as they continued to transform Malta into the ‘island fortress’ that it became. In this way, the empire on ‘which the sun never sets’ would have a tighter grasp on power and politics on the southern edge of Europe.

The presence of bands in our feasts, therefore, is not necessarily the most attractive bit. Ironically enough, they should remind us of a foreign Protestant rule that stamped its authority on a laid-back Catholic island that was quick to assimilate the introduction of bands into its traditional feasts. The manner by which certain band clubs seem to want to dictate to parish priests how feasts should be organised would have amounted to heresy, had we been still living in the Middle Ages. Even the singing of hymns accompanied by bands within our churches is not something to be encouraged, since it is the organ that is the ideal instrument to be used in the interior of our churches. I suggest that the role of bands in our titular feasts should be re-examined so that these associations find their right place within the festa and learn how to keep it. 


From the Church to the community

While the exterior aspects of our feasts were promoted by the likes of a colonial government finding its feet and establishing itself, one cannot say the same for the interior aspect of these festivities. The festa tar-raħal knows its roots in the parish church and its immediate surroundings and parish priests with a strong personality might have been among the earliest originators of the ‘village festa’.

In his classical book Priests, Prelates and Politicians, Adrianus Koster writes about the central role that the kappillan (parish priest) played in his community – a role that was immortalised by Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Kappillan of Malta. The priest served as the doctor, the lawyer, the notary and the counsellor of many families in his parish. Even Boissevain had something to say about this in his now famous book Saints and Fireworks, which has been published in various editions and has become a guidebook to the anthropological history of our feasts.

In the process of turning our feasts from an inward-looking religious activity organised with the intention of imitating and praising the virtues of the local patron saint into a full-blown village celebration, the local Church has actually lost its grip on the outcome of the village festa. The Church may still be the main organiser and the basic institution in the social pyramid of entities that constitutes the feast, but it is by no means the only one. Other realities have attached themselves to the local feast and identified themselves with it so deeply that they have destroyed the spiritual fabric that once held it together. Our feasts have been transformed from religious festivals into purely profane celebrations that bring together the people of a particular community in such a way that the original, spiritual aspect has almost been lost. In some places it has been lost altogether.


A raison d’être in crisis

When one comes to evaluate something, the first thing that one has to ask is probably what is the raison d’être of the thing involved. Our feasts have so many faces; they have become so complex, that sometimes I wonder if they still have a direction or if they contain a meaning of their own. Before the invention of the television and the telephone, the local feast carried with it a great aura of expectation and involved the entire community.

Nowadays, although the same amount of energy – or even more – is expended on them, one cannot say that every member of the village – or every parishioner – identifies himself or herself with the feast to the same degree. There are those who could not care less about the feast; some people even make a point of planning a holiday abroad during the festive week. In the past, the feast was the main activity in the town or village where it was celebrated; today, while we still can see the same, the feast does not bring together each and every citizen of the village or town involved. 

Before the introduction of modern technology and the rendering of the world as a global village, the parish feast stood at the centre of society. With the moving of the times, I see the local festa transforming itself into a modern anachronism. The fact that hundreds of our young people participate in our marċi and shout words of praise directed to the patronal saints while throwing water over each other as they paint their faces and bodies carnival-style, does not make our feasts any better. It simply means that they have lost their raison d’être and it will be a tough job delving deep into ourselves – and into the identity of the festa – in order to find a new reason for their existence. 


Unacceptable anachronism

I get the impression that, in our attempt to hold on to our traditions and not break with the past, we are keeping alive traditions which have also become anachronistic. I am not one who is against traditions; on the contrary, if one were to speak of the conservative versus the progressive stance, I would certainly stand on the side of the former. However, the way our external feasts have evolved during the last couple of decades is both worrying and dangerous.

The difference in attitude between the way feasts are celebrated on the interior level, and the unbearable form they are taking on an exterior level, is become clearer year after year. It is not only that the Church has lost its grip on the outer festivities of our titular feasts; even the Government should be involved and put its foot down in order to clear our feasts from some of their extreme expressions.

Unchecked drinking, together with the extremely liberal dress code that is allowed in our streets and squares at festa time, are only two of the various aspects that need to be revisited. It is only the powers-that-be that can do something about it and I am afraid that is a cry that will fall on deaf ears, since no political party in government is ready to pay the price of legislating against such abuses.

Above all, what is worst is the fact that these abuses – which I am sure many readers would not consider to be such and would even defend under the pretexts of liberalism, democracy and laissez-faire – are giving the impression, especially to tourists, that they are blessed by the Church under whose umbrella our feasts are celebrated even in the open air. This time it is not the Church that must do something; it is the search for the common good and the love for right reason and right order that should prevail upon any personal or individual opinion as we work together to obtain a morally healthy environment and provide a good example to the younger generations.

Who would not agree that freedom and liberalism are not one and the same thing, because liberalism is the abuse of freedom in its worst form! Our feasts are quickly becoming living proof that our Christianity is becoming decadent by the hour, due to the conglomeration of authentic spirituality, living faith and a culture that has lost its bearing.

Our feasts, on the other hand, have been gradually transformed into a modern, rampant and sometimes even untamed worship of everything that pleases the senses, varying from excessive drinking and untamed ‘briju’ – a word that hardly has a literal translation into English since it is a local brand of merriment – to young men throwing water at each other with the aim of making visual the physical aspect of what has been termed as the ‘weaker sex’. 

The extravagant hedonism that is fast characterising our feasts cannot continue to flourish under the banner of the Church. A careful analysis of the festa phenomenon asks for a clearer separation between its spiritual features and all the remaining components. I, for one, believe that the time has come to delegate our feasts to the secular arm rather than remaining stagnant in the present situation and at risk of losing our community of the faithful to other sects or denominations, thus destroying the Catholic fabric that has been part of our Maltese culture for the last two millennia.

Source : http://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2017-07-02/newspaper-letters/What-went-wrong-with-our-feasts-A-personal-view-6736176063

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