Have you already experienced Christmas on the island? Perhaps you’ve lived here your entire life? Either way, you know very well that Christmas in Malta is synonymous with food. Loads of it. From staff parties to Christmas lunch at nanna and everything in between. We all start the year stuffed, bloated, and with a strong aversion to meat, poultry, and panettones.
However, if you look deeper, Christmas in Malta is much more than food. With traditions spanning centuries, there are plenty of special moments to adopt for a uniquely special family Christmas. Just don’t expect snow. That’s a no-go.
Preparing Gulbiena (Vetches)
Historically, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December served as a reminder for the Maltese to get busy planting vetches. Known locally as ġulbiena (pronounced jul-bee-na), vetches are a species of wheat, grain or canary seeds. They’re grown specifically to decorate homes and churches during the Christmas season.
It’s a fun family activity as you can easily grow your own at home. You will need seeds (found at your local grocer), a bowl and some cotton wool. Simply place some cotton wool in a bowl and then sprinkle the seeds over it. Store the bowl in the dark for about 5 weeks until the seeds produce white and stringy shoots. Make sure to water your vetches daily.
Check out this site for detailed instructions.
A place for Baby Jesus
An heirloom Baby Jesus is a prized possession in many Maltese families. They’re passed from one generation to the next, and where there isn’t one in the family already, it’s often gifted to newlyweds by a close family member or friend.
Now, we know what you’re thinking. Having an heirloom statue and energetic toddlers in the same space is a recipe for disaster. You may have to think of creative ways to keep the two apart. The image of my two year old wobbling as she carried my great grandma’s ancient baby Jesus (all while trying to stuff her dummy in his mouth) still gives me nightmares. That said, a baby Jesus at home is an opportunity for many nativity stories, and decorating the area around it can be fun for the kids.
Creating a Nativity Scene at home
There are three types of Maltese nativity cribs: The figurines depicting Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus; the crib with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus accompanied by the donkey, cow, sheep and a shepherd; and the larger crib with additional scenery featuring the Holy Family and other characters from the Nativity Story.
Building your own crib from papier-mâché or recyclables is a fun activity which the whole family can enjoy. A number of parishes organize crib-making seminars close to Christmas, which are also great for older kids to learn the traditional art of Maltese crib-making.
The Nativity Crib Tour on Christmas Day
A highlight of our Christmas (apart from Santa Claus’ visit, of course) was touring different mechanical cribs around the island, and eventually also some live ones.
There are highly talented crib makers in Malta and their creations are astounding. The bigger ones also have recorded commentaries and the kids will love watching the scene as figurines move on tracks around the crib.
In recent years – pre-Covid that is – live nativity scenes became a popular attraction in Malta as people dress up in character and reenact the nativity.
While we cannot say this is ideal for kids, the atmosphere at midnight masses across the island is amazing. It’s warm, there’s a strong sense of community, and the traditional sermon delivered by a child is most adorable.
If your kids sleep well in their strollers, then it can be doable. If not, some parishes organise a more kid-friendly version of the midnight mass in the evening so you can still get into the Christmas spirit without having to mess up bedtime.
Started by the M.U.S.E.U.M Society in 1921, the children’s procession is held in most parishes on Christmas Day. The statue of baby Jesus is carried along village streets, with children carrying lanterns and singing traditional Christmas songs such as Ninni la Tibkix Izjed.
Some towns even put on fully fledged pageants with verses and personalities from the nativity story. Check your parish’s Christmas programme for details on time.
Christmas Good Deed
Kindness and giving should be year-long, but Christmas provides extra opportunity to instil this in our kids. The Foundation for Social Welfare Services organises an annual initiative called Children’s Dreams where your family can contribute a gift and make a child’s wish come true.
You can also help the kids organise their toys and pick out some to donate to children’s homes. A visit to an elderly relative or friend who would otherwise be alone is also a heartfelt gesture.
What’s special about Christmas is that you can make your own traditions as a family. Whether it’s Christmas brunch, matching pajamas, or a relaxed afternoon sipping mulled wine while the kids explore their new toys, Christmas is a time for family and we’re all here for it!
We got the history from Guido Lanfranco’s this site – it’s worth a read if you’re interested in going deeper into Maltese Christmas traditions!
Looking for more ideas to keep your kids entertained? Check out our Activities section.