Looking Back 2023: The festa’s rite of passage

The Maltese festa symbolises a community’s 'rite of passage', Oliver Friggieri had said in 2009, taking the side of those resisting the Church’s attempt to ‘restore feasts’

The Maltese festa symbolises a community’s “rite of passage”, Oliver Friggieri had said in 2009, taking the side of those resisting the Church’s attempt to ‘restore feasts’.

Friggieri’s depiction of the traditional village feast was a simple and yet profound reflection on how religious feasts started from the Church but ended up belonging to the community.

“The yearly appointment helps the community remember its dead, but it also is a celebration of those who are born,” Friggieri had said in the interview.

His comments came at a time when the Curia released a document intended to ‘restore’ feasts by introducing more controls on profane behaviour outside the confines of the church. The reform was resisted by festa enthusiasts, who felt the Church was overreaching its powers. Eventually, the Curia relented.

Friggieri’s comments provided intellectual muscle to those opposed to the reform. He had argued that to be able to ‘restore’ feasts, the Church authorities had to understand that restoration does not mean destruction.

“When you restore a Caravaggio, you do not turn it into a Chagall, you leave it a Caravaggio but you clean it, bringing out the colours,” he had said.

It was a watershed moment which pitted lay people responsible for organising village feasts against the Church authorities. The friction between the two may have dissipated over time but 14 years later, it seems the ‘people’ have had the final word.

The Maltese festa was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2023 in a moment of crowning glory for the thousands of enthusiasts who organise and participate in feasts.

UNESCO describes the Maltese festa as a ‘community celebration’ and in a short write-up on its website captures the sentiment Friggieri had expressed 14 years earlier: “Despite its increased secularisation, the festa remains an important part of cultural heritage in Maltese villages, uniting families, outsiders and local communities in a celebration of popular religiosity and local identities.”

But for people like Godfrey Farrugia, a former MP and festa enthusiast, UNESCO recognition alone is not enough. In an interview with MaltaToday he had said the government, citizens, and band clubs have the responsibility of keeping the feast alive by making sure they evolve with time.

UNESCO’s recognition in 2023 came on the back of a bleak period after feasts were prohibited from being held, like all other entertainment and mass activities, during the COVID years.

The village festa risked losing enthusiasts along the way as they adapted to a different lifestyle. The foreboding did not translate into disaster, at least for most feasts, and the Maltese festa remains etched in the cultural and social calendar of this nation.

“UNESCO recognition can help Maltese feasts grow because this is a heritage that we must appreciate and we are obliged to pass it on to future generations,” Godfrey Farrugia had said.

In many ways, 2023 is another watershed moment – a rite of passage for the festa that defines how the future of the traditional celebration will look.