From Tuesday to the Third Sunday of July
The third Sunday of July is always festa day. It is Gozo’s annual St George’s Day. On this day, the bedecked city of Victoria is packed with cheerful crowds. Locals compete for space with other people who flock from the surrounding villages, or cross over from the island of Malta, the latter coming mostly from Ħal Qormi where St George is also Patron Saint.
Of course, Gozo celebrates St George on his proper day as well, which falls in April. April 23rd is St George’s Day all over the world and his festive memory is kept in Gozo and all over the Maltese islands as it is held in the homes and churches of the Christian East and West, in Istanbul, Canterbury and Rome, as well, very probably, as in the most distant regions of the globe.
St George’s Day is perhaps not kept in all the regions of the world in the same manner, nor does the Martyr’s memory necessarily convey a uniform religious significance. In our case, both April 23rd and the Third Sunday of July are primarily religious festivities although they have different, albeit complementary, emphasis. While the April day is exclusively devotional and practically confined to the day’s internal church celebrations, the July festa is spread out over several days of external festivities, cultural fare and popular entertainment. Indeed, Gozo’s summer St George’s Day stretches for no less than three weeks.
Every Maltese town and village has its festa. At times a village may have more than just one, depending on the number of parish churches or saintly patrons (within the same parish church) with whom different localities or social groups may identify. Every festa, however, strives for the biggest church pomp and pageantry, and provides for the wildest external revelry possible. Quite aptly the Maltese refer to these two festa dimensions as il-festi ta’ ġewwa (internal festivities) and il-festi ta’ barra (external festivities). The former consist of devotional actions and liturgical ritual, and the latter comprise street decorations, band marches and fun events such as horse racing and youth parties.
However each festa has its peculiarities and its distinctive aspects. This is certainly the case with St George’s Festa. St George’s Festa is distinctive on two counts: (1) It has retained, without interruption, the traditional format of the liturgy, (2) it has nevertheless continued to be the most innovative in keeping abreast with a changing society.
A truly traditional festa
It is the only festa in the Maltese islands that has retained the traditional format of the internal festivities and, amid the changes ascribed to the Second Vatican Council (wrongly accredited with a latter day stripping of the altars), kept it entirely unchanged. In fact, while all over Malta and Gozo the Mass has substituted the Gregorian celebration of Vespers, and now dominates the evening Triduum ritual, in St George’s Basilica, the ritual is still what it always has been: Latin Vespers with a cappella motets, sermon inspired by the Patron Saint’s Christian heroism, the novena prayer of intercession, performance of the Triduum hymn in praise of St George followed by the Martyr’s liturgical antiphon (soloists, full choir and orchestra), solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Eucharistic Benediction and, finally, the congregation’s veneration of the Saint’s reliquary which sees the people lining up to the altar to kiss the Holy Relic.
The traditional format of the evening prior to festa day has also been jealously preserved. In fact, apart from the first vigil low Mass, on the eve of St George’s Day, the Collegiate Church provides solely for the pontifical translatio (translation) of the Holy Relic followed by the celebration of First Vespers, and Eucharistic Benediction. Even on this day, as in the other days of the Triduum, High Mass is celebrated only in the morning, with that of Saturday including the solemn intonation of the Te Deum. On the final day (Sunday), there are solemn Second Vespers with the participation of choir and orchestra and these lead up to the procession. The procession is the highlight of every Maltese festa!
Perhaps, in the case of Gozo’s San Ġorġ, the highlights are three.
The first one is the pontifical translatio of the Relic followed by Pontifical Vespers with the participation not only the Basilica’s Collegiate Chapter but also, as tradition dictates, several monsignori from the Cathedral Chapter.
Then, early the following morning, there is the Pontifical High Mass with the Collegiate Chapter and clergy concelebrating, the latter beefed up by a large number of visiting priests. After the Gospel reading, a learned preacher, often belonging to a religious order, delivers a panegyric, i.e. an oration about St George, his life, his Christian heroism and his power of intercession.
Finally, in the evening, there is the procession with a relic of St George and his statue. Until recently, for many years the procession was presided uninterruptedly by the Bishop of Gozo and comprises several monsignori, the Collegiate Chapter of St George’s Basilica and its priests, the Religious Orders of the city, the seminarians of the Diocese, the various confraternities carrying their banners, as well as the La Stella Band that accompanies the titular statue. The procession winds its way around Victoria amid the devotion, applause and the religious hymns played by the La Stella musicians.
As in other festas, the internal festivities come to an end when, after the re-entrance of the procession in the Basilica, the Archpriest presides over the final rendition of the liturgical antiphon in honour of St George, and delivers Eucharistic Benediction to the thousands of faithful that crowding the church and its front square.
The external festivities
It has always been a distinctive mark of St George’s festa to preserve the religious character the external festivities and to keep them subject to the specifically liturgical celebrations. These celebrations constitute, after all, the core of the festa. This is something that is today happily well followed by other festa organisers in Gozo.
The preparations for the external festivities which, for over 100 years, have been entrusted by the Curia to the La Stella Band, start well before those of the church. Indeed, these preparations occupy various groups of people, young and old, throughout the year, and all of them strive hard to collect funds and to make sure that, the coming year, they will outdo the previous year in fireworks displays, street decorations, and so on. This is specially the case with the Għaqda Armar whose members, mostly young men and women, work incessantly and with irrepressible enthusiasm to restore, enhance existing street decorations, and create new ones.
Monday – Horse races
Late in the evening there are the traditional horse races which are very popular with those who love such sporting activity. These used to be held on the Sunday afternoon, but practical reasons demanded their transfer, something which in fact went down well with everyone.
Tuesday – Il-Ħruġ min-Niċċa
The first activity coincides with the triumphal ħruġ (exit) of the statue of St George from its niche on the Tuesday preceding the six-day festa. And do the external festivities start with a bang!
The La Stella Band begins to march from the Taċ-Ċawla neighbourhood. Upon the band’s arrival in St George’s Square, an hour later, the people accompanying it join the crowd inside the Basilica to attend the popular ritual which sees the statue of St George being brought out of its niche amid the singing and clapping of the crowd while the band plays the most popular hymn to St George. Tuesday is the foretaste of what is to come. For the next five days there is no rest for the committee and members of the La Stella Band!
This day’s statue depicts the adolescent George, less his military garb, wearing a Roman tunic with a symbolic sword tied to his side, his gaze turned to heaven and his arm reaching out to it while waving his martyr’s palm. After the Ġorġi tagħna (the hymn to the Saint), the La Stella winds its way up, and then down the narrow west street known as San Ġorġ tal-Ħaġar (St George’s Street), round into Library Street, Archpriest Alfons Marija Hili Street, up Charity, down Triq Mons. Farrugia, and left into Strada Palma where the statue is laid upon its plinth in St Francis’ Square. Most of the people accompanying the crowd are today usually from the parish.
By that day the streets of Victoria, as indeed the rest of the city, are already decorated with statuary, banners, and coloured lights. From that day on, the main sites of Victoria become cluttered with nougat stalls and food kiosks vending the traditional fare of cheese cakes, soft drinks and ice cream. That day marks the start of the daily invasion of the town’s main streets and squares by hordes of people.
Wednesday – L-Ewwel Jum tat-Tridu
The external festivities on Wednesday, the first day of the Triduum, start on St Francis Square, at around 9.00pm, by which time a large crowd would have filled the sprawling square to capacity. A large statue of St George on a white stallion and flashing his deadly sword at the underlying dragon is carried shoulder high, accompanied by the La Stella Band together with a guest band giving full voice to their instruments amid a surging crowd made up mostly of young families – couples dragging small children behind them, and crowds of youths.
Moving slowly down Strada Palma, turning up into Republic Street where ground fireworks are let off, then alongside It-Tokk, into St Joseph Street and, finally, St George’s Square, the whole do take all of three hours. Then there is the jubilant tlugħ (rising) of the statue onto its gilded plinth right in front of the Baslica. And then… a welcome beer at one of the numerous bars around. One – two o’clock, and off to bed.
Thursday – Il-Ħamis tat-Tridu
Thursday dawns early for the bell ringers who call the priests and faithful for concelebrated High Mass at 9.00am. But it is again in the late evening that the La Stella Band’s commitments begin. On this second day of the Triduum, the band starts marching from St George’s Square. Another statue of St George is carried shoulder high. It is the statue of St George, Patron Saint of Gozo, which is placed on its plinth at Savina Square.
Friday – Id-Dimostrazzjoni
Friday, the third day of the Triduum is another affair altogether. On this day the dimostrazzjoni l-kbira (the big demonstration) is held. In early evening, the dazzling statue of St George that belongs to the La Stella Band is placed in front of the open portals of the Basilica awaiting its turn to be carried shoulder high around the streets of the city. People start gathering on St George’s Square at around 9.30pm. Various bands from the villages would already have started their tours but the city band, La Stella, only starts to play at 10.30pm. Again it is accompanied by another band whose honour it would be to join it on this important highlight of the external festa.
The festive evening approaches its conclusion by impressive ground fireworks. Catherine wheels lining Republic Steet and noisy rockets mounted on wooden poles form an astonishingly beautiful backdrop of multi-coloured fire while the statue, flanked by thick crowds of bustling people, ascends slowly to the delight of the revellers and their applause. Upon the statue’s arrival on Independence Square, at around 1.00am, it is placed on a mobile platform and then raised up the to rest for the final days of the festa on the highest plinth in town, while the band plays the most popular hymn to St George and fireworks displays light up the dark summer night.
Saturday – Lejlet il-Festa
Saturday always dawns late, at least as far as the previous night’s revelers are concerned. On this day, the external festivities start late in the morning and they are tied to the solemn conclusion of the Triduum cycle (preceded by the nine Novena days which would have started as early as the first week of July) inside the Basilica. To celebrate it, a Te Deum is intoned by the Archpriest, or by his special guest celebrant for the day, and its chanted praise is immediately answered by the festive pealing of the uniquely solemn bells of the Basilica which is in turn taken up by a fireworks display. These are the cue for the members of the La Stella Band to assemble on St George’s Square and to start a march which takes it and its supporters to the Club where drinks and food are offered to the members of the Society and to the eminent guests present for the reception.
Other changes in the traditional pattern of the external festivities occurred recently. These include the performance of the L-Innu l-Kbir in the Vigil of the festa before the start of the ceremonial march entrusted to the La Stella of the city of Victoria and the King’s Own of the city of Valletta. Another change involved the venue for the so-called marċ ta’ filgħodu on Sunday morning, which has now been confined to St George’s and Independence Squares in order to avoid areas of potential offence. Yet, while the former is abidingly dignified, the latter is an entirely different kettle of fish altogether.
The external festivities reach their peak on festa day evening, when the La Stella Band takes her place of pride in the annual procession of St George to accompany the superb image of the Patron Saint along the main the streets of the city. For the first part, until the procession moves out of the basilica, it is on the La Stella that every body is focused, while the statue exits through the main portals and is greeted by huge crowds present amidst the vivid colour the of banners, the waving of palm branches, the rain of confetti, the aerial explosive displays and the playing of the loveliest hymns to St George by band and population.
The conclusion of the procession at around 10.30pm is likewise spectacular and… who could describe the electric atmosphere!
An innovative festa
The novelty of the annual Festa of St George lies in the introduction of a high cultural dimension. Culture of the highest degree is not simply a run up to the festa, it runs right through it. Culture is represented both by what is characteristic of the Maltese festas in general (mostly decorative art, band musical performances, fireworks displays and some popular drama) but also by what is absolutely unique to St George’s. The former kind of culture is primarily spearheaded by the Soċjetà La Stella (La Stella Band Club); the latter is the offshoot of the Laudate Pueri Choir, the resident choir of St George’s Basilica.
The Soċjetà La Stella
Very often, people who are active in St George’s parish are also more or less actively involved with the Soċjetà La Stella that is responsible for the running of the external festivities. This is one of the reasons why in the planning of the festa, priority has always been given to the internal celebrations not only to avoid any conflicting of activities, but also to enable people to participate freely and fully in both church and square.
One characteristic of these people is the drive for excellence in whatever is done. This is evident in the performances of the Banda Ċittadina La Stella (The La Stella Band). It is so obvious in the outstanding decorative stuff that is annually delivered for the festa by the Għaqda Armar (Group for Street Decorations). It is also what the Għaqda tan-Nar (Committee for Fireworks) strives for when it confines the potential for quantity and pushes solely for quality.
The Laudate Pueri Choir
Excellence is also obvious in the input by the Laudate Pueri Choir whose creative leaders organise and skilfully oversee the music performed during the internal festivities. This is particularly evident in all that is given out by the solisti, kor u orkestra (soloists, choir and orchestra) during the five-day church celebrations, from Wednesday to Sunday. It has now become almost a tradition to invite foreign male soloists for the festa who have over the last years turned up from Italy, Portugal, Bulgaria and Sicily. The high quality orchestra, coupled with the top class choral output by the Basilica’s own choir, has garnered for St George’s Festa a reputation that is well known throughout the Maltese islands and acknowledged as absolutely unique.
The Victoria International Arts Festival
High culture as a run up to the festa is particularly embodied in the Victoria International Arts Festival. This festival, originally launched in 1998, commences in mid-June and provides evenings of splendid music for about two whole weeks leading up to the Monday of sacred Baroque music prior to festa day.
This festival has added to St George’s Festa a new kind of entertainment, entirely different from what is traditionally associated with Maltese patronal feasts. It has widens the festa’s social catchment area through its novel wide outreach. It offers something different to those who would not care for the folksy banner and petard. It brings together people of differing religious confession, offers new opportunity for enthusiasts to collaborate in offering Gozo outstanding musical fare, and encourages friendship amongst people who would otherwise not meet. It promotes musical appreciation, offers a stage to local talent and provides them with a formative encounter with foreign professionals in a variety of instrumental and vocal expertise.
The initiative to create this festival would not have been successful were it not for the creative atmosphere that reigns within the Parish of St George, is sustained by the Parish Office and spearheaded by the Laudate Pueri Choir that is always so very much involved in the festival’s organization. This festival, whose venues are primarily St George’s Basilica, the beautiful halls annexed to it, its tiny cloister as well as the historic sites of the surrounding area, has given an entirely unique dimension to the Festa of St George.
This lies in the hands of our younger generations and the indications are that it lies in very good hands. It is up to them to preserve the traditional character of the festa, the Catholic values that it manifests, the identity that it expresses, the innovative contribution that it gives to the locality and the place that it holds in the local social calendar.