When life moved at a much slower pace and life as we know it was still a long way away, religion and the social events it generated in the community, were the only reprieve from a mundane and sometimes quite harsh existence. One such event is ‘Mnarja’; a quaint festival that is still gloriously celebrated to this day. The ‘Mnarja’ festival also features strongly in our folklore where along with village festas, Good Friday celebrations, the ‘Vitorja’ Regatta, and other popular festivals, it was intricately woven in the social fabric of bygone days.
The centuries old ‘Mnarja’ or ‘l-Imnarja’ is a corruption of the Italian word ‘luminara’ – illumination. Celebrated on the 29th of June, it is officially the feast of St.Peter and St. Paul. The origins of this popular feast, traditionally a harvest festival, can be traced back to the 15th century but mainly regarded as a national event since the Rule of the Knights of St.John. A festival of religion, food and music celebrated officially for the first time in 1613 with a torchlight religious procession from Mdina to St.Paul’s Grotto in Rabat and the firing of a 100 petards. The Mdina cathedral and bastions were also lavishly illuminated with torches and bonfires, hence the name.
The festivities commenced on the 24th of June – the feast of St.John, where bonfires were lit all over the Rabat-Mdina area to herald the forthcoming ‘Mnarja’ festival. On the eve of the feast itself, after the religious procession, the reading of the ‘bandu’ ceremony would take place. The ‘bandu’ was a governmental announcement that officially inaugurated the festivities where the ‘palji’ (special brocaded banners); the much-coveted prizes for the bare-back donkey and horse races to take place on the following day, were presented to the public.
Following this, the celebrations continued throughout the night at the neighboring woodlands of Buskett Garden where our ‘national’ dish – the ‘fenkata’ – rabbit stewed in a rich wine sauce with a robust dose of local herbs, was consumed in vast quantities accompanied by equally voluminous amounts of locally produced wine. Legend has it, that this was the only day of the year where the Maltese were allowed to hunt and eat wild rabbit, which was otherwise the prerogative of the Knights. No part of the animal would go to waste – from the offal; fried kidneys and livers fried in garlic and doused liberally with wine vinegar as soon as they’re cooked through, to the head which was used to lend even more flavour to the unctuous tomato sauce stewing the already fried rabbit pieces.
The traditional ‘Ghana’ enlivened the nightlong proceedings, well into the early hours of the morning. Two ‘ghannejja’ would often carry on a conversation in rhyming quatrains chanting lampoons with speed and ease; a great source of mirth for their audience, evidence of great colloquial skill and quite a dry sense of humour, usually accompanied by the trilling of guitars.
A delightful custom that has long since vanished was that, in their pre-nuptial agreement, a groom-to-be would pledge to take his new wife to Buskett in their first year of marriage, for luck and prosperity. It is said that many of the newly wed brides would attend in their full wedding regalia and would be congratulated by all.
After a night of boisterous celebrations at Buskett Gardens, the festivities would reach their culmination on the afternoon of the day itself, when bare-back donkey and horse races were organised at the foot of Saqqajja Hill. Races for men, boys and slaves also took place. Still in existence is a large arched loggia purposely built in 1696 at the winning post, from where the Grand Master accompanied by members of the Council of the Order could watch the races in relative comfort. The winners would traditionally donate the ‘palji’ to their respective village churches to be later used as an altar cloth.
Essentially a peasants’ harvest festival, the agricultural aspect of ‘Mnarja’ eventually took off in 1854, when the Maltese Agricultural Society under the auspices of the then British Governor, Sir William Reid organised the first agricultural show, exhibiting the best vegetable and fruit produce and the finest specimens of farmyard animals by local farmers. Presentations also included honey, gbejniet (cheeselets), sundried tomatoes and many other home-made delicacies, still produced today in what is known as the local cottage industry.
Today’s ‘Mnarja’ has mainly retained its magnificent customs and traditions. While its religious aspect is much less pronounced, it remains one of the major folkloristic events of the islands. It is still characterised by a nightlong picnic at Buskett, where the gardens are extravagantly festooned in colourful lights. Long trestle tables are laid out and while our famous ‘fenkata’ still takes pride of place as the ultimate culinary offering, nowadays a variety of food is available. As in celebrations of olden days, the agricultural exhibition is still held annually in Buskett on the morning of the feast day itself. The donkey and horse bare-back races on Saqqajja Hill in the afternoon are not to be missed, even if this particular event held in the unrelenting summer heat is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
The ‘Mnarja’ festival celebrations in Gozo are well worth a mention. Being one of the most spectacular feasts, that of St.Peter and St.Paul in Nadur, Gozo’s largest village, attracts thousands of enthusiasts from all over the island and beyond. As well as the customary ‘festa’ rituals; fireworks, band marches and the procession with the titular statue, the traditional ‘Mnarja’ events held in Malta are recreated in Nadur on perhaps a smaller but by no means less spectacular scale.
The festival of ‘Mnarja’ embodies, in many ways, the unique and distinctive way of life of our ancestors; their incomparable ability to find ways of celebrating their religion, their work, their joys and gratitude. A vital feature of our country’s cultural patrimony, it is essential on our part to keep ‘Mnarja’ and similar celebrations, alive in the most authentic and traditional manner possible.