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Labour of love: The almost century-long family history behind St Julian’s Gostra

MaltaToday spoke to Simon Bugeja, whose family have been organising the gostra for over 60 years, to find out more about the 119-year-old tradition

denise_grech
Denise Grech
20 August 2017, 7:01am
Got it! (Above) A Gostra contestant manages to get hold of the first flag, the Vatican coloured-flag, during yesterday afternoon’s proceedings at Spinola Bay. Photo: Chris Mangion/MaltaToday
Got it! (Above) A Gostra contestant manages to get hold of the first flag, the Vatican coloured-flag, during yesterday afternoon’s proceedings at Spinola Bay. Photo: Chris Mangion/MaltaToday
“God forbid the ġostra would die out,” jokes Simon Bugeja, organiser of the St Julian’s event, one of the activities for the feast of St Julian.

Bugeja, who has been organising the event for over a decade, said the gostra has been part of his family’s history for almost a century. “My father organised the event for over 50 years before I took over.”

Simon Bugeja at the foot of the Gostra pole as it was being laid out with lard, yesterday morning. His one piece of advice for competitors: “Keep running and don’t look back, because once you stop, you’re out!”
Simon Bugeja at the foot of the Gostra pole as it was being laid out with lard, yesterday morning. His one piece of advice for competitors: “Keep running and don’t look back, because once you stop, you’re out!”
Every year, spectators line St Julian’s Spinola bay to watch the traditional gostra, where 10-12 competitors run along an upward-inclined 10-metre long lard-plastered pole in an effort to win various prizes.

Bugeja’s passion stems from his father, Nazju Bugeja, whose name is “synonymous with gostra”, according to a 2012 study by Manoel Pirotta. Nazju’s passion motivated young Simon, who vividly remembers his father’s work on the yearly event. “[Simon’s] job is to keep the tradition alive, just like his father wanted,” Pirotta says.

Simon, like his father before him, is also a member of the St Julian’s feast committee.

St. Julian’s commemorated Nazju’s work on the fifth year anniversary of his death, when Simon commissioned band director Pirotta to write a band march entitled “Nazju Tal-Gostra”.

Photo: Chris Mangion/MaltaToday
Photo: Chris Mangion/MaltaToday
“We’ve had many dreams for the gostra to grow,” Bugeja said as he described his efforts to get a garage to store the pole, which his father bought in 1988.

Bugeja joked that he thinks about the gostra all year round, and starts preparing the lard that is smeared over the pole, months in advance of the day. Preparations take around two to three months to be completed, after the organising team makes the necessary arrangements for awards and for permits.

Photo: Chris Mangion/MaltaToday
Photo: Chris Mangion/MaltaToday
The organising team is often the same as the competitive team: “Everyone lends a hand and pulls the same rope. If you’re competing you’re also helping with logistics.”

The practice, which dates back to the 1800s, has recently been extended to allow children, seven and up, to take part in the game.

Grease is smeared thickly on the 30-year-old pole, which is attached to a barge, and projects at length over the harbour. Although the word itself is Italian-derived, the gostra dates back to the Neopolitan game of Cockaigne pole.

Victory! Photo: Chris Mangion/MaltaToday
Victory! Photo: Chris Mangion/MaltaToday
Three flags line the lard-covered pole and contestants tread the pole to capture the flags at various stages. Each of the flags on the gostra pole has a religious meaning – the blue and white flag represents the Holy Mary, the yellow and white flag shows the Vatican standard, and the Belgian tricolor represents the homeland of St Julian. 

Bugeja has one piece of advice for this weekend’s competitors: “Keep running and don’t look back, because once you stop, you’re out!”

This year’s gostra takes place on the 19th, 20th, 26th and 27th August at Spinola Bay. 

denise_grech
Denise Marie Grech graduated in Anthropology and Psychology from the University of Malta, ...
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