Why is it that Christmas preparations seem to come round earlier every year? The race is on to arrive unscathed, yet sometimes you wish to pause and take the time to watch everyone else dashing around for once.
And why not do just that? Surely, this year you can afford to delegate to someone else the joy giving, the cake making and the stress that comes with putting together the Christmas lunch. While you're at it, why not observe someone else's traditions, somewhere else in the globe where they do things differently?
So how do the Maltese celebrate Christmas? They still indulge in the usual frantic shopping, they still decorate the major shopping streets with colourful lights, they still adorn real or artificial trees with tasteless ornaments - but they also have some unique traditions of their own.
Many of the traditions linked to this time are aimed at children and this is one of them. As children, we were sent to the local version of Sunday school, only it was every day - and, without a shred of irony, it was known as Duttrina (indoctrination). For our troubles, just before Christmas, the teachers lovingly crafted a presepju (crib) for each child - a miniature model of the nativity scene constructed in papier mâché, complete with plaster statuettes of the holy family. The tradition of the crib is one that's shared with the southern part of Italy and Sicily. Various towns in Malta exhibit cribs of various sizes and complexity around this time. Some of them can be extremely beautiful. Crib building of the type prevalent in Naples in Malta is said to have been introduced to Malta in the first half of the 17th century but was then the preserve of the rich. In the nineteenth century the Sicilian style of crib was introduced and flourished.
The Children's Procession
Again, this tradition was started in 1907 by the same Society that runs the 'Sunday School'. Even for a heathen such as myself, coming across one of these processions in the streets of Malta can be quite an experience. The children hold candles and carry a statue of the baby Jesus while singing carols.
The Honey Ring Cake
Although these days you might find this traditional sweet in all times of the year, the qaghaq tal-ghasel is a Christmas delicacy. The original mixture for the filling seems to have been made up of a cooked mixture of honey, semolina, and a liqueur of sorts. These days it is filled with a treacle mixture (see recipe on amaltesemouthful.com).