Carnival in Malta is a highly anticipated event locally. With a long period of preparations for performances, elaborate floats and planning, the excitement around carnival reaches a fever pitch come February.
So, what is the carnival all about?
Malta Carnival 2019 dates
28th Feb – 5th March
What is the Malta carnival?
The Malta carnival (Il-Karnival Ta’ Malta in Maltese) is a Catholic religious celebration with roots going back hundreds of years. It is still seen and celebrated by many Maltese people in this vein, although the show and festivities around the event are taken seriously just as much.
The carnival traditionally serves as the last indulgence before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. In fact, the word carnival stems from carnivore, which translates to ‘meat allowed’.
The devout make sacrifices during the Lent period, usually giving up meat and sweets. As such, the festival is traditionally seen as the last chance to have what you are about to give up for over a month.
Many Maltese people still do this to honour their faith, although younger generations seem less inclined to practice their religion in this way. Instead, some use the occasion to shed some of the weight gained over the Christmas period and in time for summer.
What are carnival celebrations like in Malta?
Today, the carnival fuses old and modern traditions and brings about a party atmosphere to Malta, as well as in Gozo. Celebrations take the form of elaborate costumes, massive colourful floats often loaded with loud PA systems, amazing food, dances, parades, music, and competitions.
Here’s a video to give you a flavour of the event:
Like famous carnivals around the world such as the Rio Carnival in Brazil, The Day of the Dead in Mexico, and the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, America, the Malta Carnival has its own character and flavour. As well as a beautiful blast of colour and sound the carnival celebrates satire and the grotesque. This is very much the spirit of the event and gives the ‘Maltese carnivalesque’ feel.
This makes the carnival a unique experience. Locals have always loved it, treasured it, and grown up with it. Increasingly, people from around the world descend on Malta to savour it. The beloved tradition that goes back centuries and started by ancient peoples, is now a high point in the international traveller’s cultural quest.
The celebrations start early and are aimed at children. As the days tumble into nights celebrations become more focused on adults with bars and clubs continuing the party vibe. Traditional food pops up at this time of year as well, most popularly Prinjolata, a special carnival cake that’s very sweet. Normally the size of the cake is massive but smaller ones are often sold as well. Sample one if you’re around during the carnival season though be prepared for a massive sugar high!
Carnival celebrations in Valletta
After the opening ceremony, the main focus of the carnival is in Malta’s capital city of Valletta in Freedom Square. Here, the celebrations tend to take the following shape over the five days:
- Best costume competition – Have a costume see if you can win
- Artistic dances – see dancers good and bad do their thing
- Grotesque masks and floats – These represent the satirical vein that runs through the carnival. Made of cardboard and and papier-mâché and painted in bright colours, these massive floats often depict comical scenes or political satire. They take months of dedication and preparation by groups of locals who are passionate about carnival and take pride in building the most eye catching float of the carnival.
- As well as the floats and the glamour and the grotesque, the carnival possesses plenty of organised entertainment from dance troupes, theatre productions, bands, and street magicians.
- From an artistic and educational perspective, the carnvial includes workshops educating visitors on why and how the carnival came about.
- As well as the competitions, all night parties in the clubs and bars tend to thrive, while floats parade down the street.
Carnival in Gozo
If you want a change of pace and a more diverse theme, why not check out the Nadur Carnival on Gozo. Although carnival celebrations aren’t as bombastic as they are in Malta, especially youths flock to the village of Nadur for a massive carnival party in the streets.
It is not officially part of the carnival celebrations but has grown into a popular carnival tradition. So much so, that the ferry that connects Gozo and Malta struggles to cope with demand.
You’ll find the weirdest but often also funniest carnival dress ups and costumes here, often treading the line of what’s acceptable during an originally religious celebration. (And that often to the generally slightly more conservative Gozitan population).
Malta Summer Carnival
Relatively new to the calendar, Malta’s Summer Carnival is rapidly gaining in popularity. The festival features a parade of colourful floats, a defile with music and dance and food. Buġibba square and Marsaskala are usually the locations where the action happens over a weekend, normally in August.
As part of the carnival, a traditional ġostra is also held.
Normally associated with the festa (village feast – another religious celebration in Malta) of St. Julian’s, the ġostra is an event is a pretty hilarious tradition. At sea, a long pole is erected at a steep angle, smothered in grease or animal fat. Competitors are challenged to try and run up the pole to reach the flags at the end.
Very few actually manage and although taken very seriously by the competitors, it creates a funny scene. The ġostra is a good example of traditions that date back centuries, often to the time of the Knights of Malta, that are still alive today.
Kids and the carnival
As you can imagine kids get involved in the carnival. Like Christmas, it is looked forward to from an early age and they have a dedicated day during the five-day event. They get to dress up and parade, play with their friends, enter competitions and learn about the traditions of the festival.
The costumes tend to be the elaborate affairs that many carnivals have. Expect feathers, expect sparkles, expect elaborate weave. There is plenty of entertainment for kids of all ages. Like the spontaneous parties that spring in the adult world the freedom for kids to be kids is one of the great things about the carnival. This is increasingly important in a world dominated by mobile phones and online devices.
This video shows how kids enjoy the event.
Carnival Floats: the Colourful, the Grotesque, and the Loud!
Float building of all types is both competitive and elaborate for the festival.
Here is a good example of the kind of floats and what goes into them from the various families and organisations that build them.
The tradition of float building has changed over the years with companies such as the Dream Team Company making floats for festivals across Europe. They can cost thousands of Euros to make and teams of 20 plus work on them to make them perfect.
Planning normally starts in March and work gets underway in August. Often the floats are used once only and volunteers come together to build the float achieving a common goal.
The History of the Carnival
The word carnival comes from the word carnivore and translates to ‘meat allowed’. It was usually held just before lent where fasting is still practised to this day. The Malta Carnival as we know it arguably began in the 15th century when the St. John Knights organised extravagant banquets and masquerades.
The tradition of carnival was passed on from generation to generation and survived 19th-century British occupation.
Today’s carnival has been shaped over the last 90 years. The artistry of all kinds has been encouraged and the satirical element that makes the carnival unique has been nurtured. Despite Malta’s turbulent history, the carnival likes her people survive. And like her people the carnival prospers.