Santa Marija: Not just a feast among feasts

Santa Marija celebrations

With the onset of summer, villages all across the Maltese Islands get moving in a flurry of preparations.

Schools have finished for the summer, half days at work have begun and, most importantly, the festa (village feast) season is now in full swing - and the Maltese are not ones to hold back when it comes to celebrations!

The festa is central to the life of each village in Malta and Gozo, commemorating the feast day of that village’s patron saint. Not a weekend between June and September goes by without one or more villages exploding into an extended rush of festivities.

Joining in is an opportunity for you to participate in a long tradition that has been around since the 16th century. Maltese festas are renowned for their street decorations, religious processions, marching bands and food stalls. Maltese families adorn their homes and churches are illuminated with lights, inside and out. However, as wonderfully gaudy as this may be, it is nothing but a warm up act for the grand finale when the days of celebrations culminate in an aerial display of psychedelic
fireworks and whirring Catherine wheels.

Chief among the summer festas is the 15th August and the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, known locally as the Feast of Santa Marija. This marks the peak of the summer season and, besides being celebrated in various localities across the Maltese Islands such as Mosta (Malta) and Victoria (Gozo), it is an important national holiday in the Maltese calendar. While some celebrate the traditional feast of their village with copious amounts of food and music, others simply take advantage of his public holiday to take some time off from work. In fact, many Maltese often take another day or two off and flock to Gozo to benefit from a long weekend lapping up the sun.

However, in the midst of all the festive chaos that comes along with Santa Marija, people often tend to forget just why the 15th August became the peak of festas in Malta. Why is it so deeply rooted in the Maltese psyche as an occasion to celebrate and why is it even a public holiday?

Supplies were on their way in a convoy of fourteen merchant ships, the most important being the Ohio, a British-manned American ship

It has all got to do with what happened on 15th August 1942. As Britain’s only foothold in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta was the only obstacle that stood in the way of victory in North Africa for Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. In the months leading up to August 1942, Malta was heavily bombed and was running very short on food, fighting gear and other supplies. The strategy of the Axis powers to starve Malta out of the war seemed to be working and they knew that if supplies did not reach the island by the end of August 1942, Malta would be forced to surrender.

Supplies were on their way in a convoy of fourteen merchant ships, the most important being the Ohio, a British-manned American ship. The plan was named Operation Pedestal and was well on its way to success until the convoy was bombed within a few days of reaching Malta. With their hope waning, the Maltese called on their faith and desperately prayed to Santa Marija for a miracle. By 14th August 1942 three ships had arrived, but there was still no sign of the Ohio.

Then, on the morning of the Feast of Santa Marija the half-sinking Ohio finally made it into the Grand Harbour to cheering crowds waving British and American flags and singing along to Rule Britannia. Believing that a miracle had occurred the convoy came to be known as the Santa Marija Convoy, and the devotion of the Maltese to Santa Marija and the feast of her Assumption became even more acute.

While the Santa Marija Convoy is a quiet recollection for most, the 15th August lives on in Maltese hearts and has evolved into modern times as an occasion of uninhibited joy and merriment
and a feeling that is truly Maltese. So grab your camera, join in the fun and head off into the Santa Marija experience. And, if you listen closely enough beyond the marching band, you might still hear the distant hum of Rule Britannia

By Rebecca Cachia

Did you know?

  • Did you know that over 31 million passengers use the bus on the Maltese Islands every year?
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