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Cribs in Malta and Gozo

The first crib known to have been built in Malta dates back to the year 1617 and was exhibited in the Domenican Friars Church in Rabat.  In St Peters Monastery in Mdina, one can still find a crib dating back to 1670.  This is treasured by the Benedictine Sisters who live in the monastery.  Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, a certain Antonio Muscat Fenech from Qormi, built a mechanical crib which he opened for public viewing in his garage.  Water dripping on fins attached to wheels was used to turn wooden shafts which in turn, activated the movements of the statuettes in the crib. Due to the visiting crowds, the crib was kept open until February.

Cribs in Malta

 The idea of crib building originated in Italy where St Francis of Assisi re-enacted the Birth of Christ. From here it spread all over Europe and eventually the World, each country adapting the crib to its own traditions, trades and style of costumes.

Crib building in Malta is said to have started in the first half of the seventeenth century, and although no documentation could be found to prove it, it is known that a crib used to be erected every Christmas at the Domenican Conventuals Church in Rabat as early as 1617. The building of cribs in Malta was influenced mainly by the Neapolitan style which was quite popular in Europe till the end of the last century.  This idea was introduced in Malta by various noblemen who could afford to buy the ‘expensive’ statuettes at the time.  The style did not represent much of a ‘Holy Night’ for the Maltese and therefore was not readily welcomed.  It is said that, as a protest, most of these cribs were burnt in winter fire in times of poverty.

The Sicilian style of crib, was introduced in Malta by a Franciscan friar from Sicily, Benedetto Papale, who is known to have lived in Malta for some time during the second half of the nineteenth century. One of his cribs can still be seen in Caltagirone, Sicily. This style was more acceptable to the Maltese, perhaps due to the likeness between the Maltese and Sicilian countryside depicted in the cribs.  Even so, the Maltese crib followed local traditions with regards to trades, costumes, musical instruments and buildings which formed the crib.  The Maltese farmhouse and flour windmill still feature prominently in locally built cribs.

The building of cribs in Malta flourished during the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries.  The media most commonly used were rustic stone, very abundant in Maltese countryside, and coal residue, commonly known as ‘gagazza’. 

The latter was generally acquired from blacksmiths.  These two media, patiently built, formed the desired basic shape of the crib.  After Christmas they could be dismantled and stored away for the following year.

The introduction of modern fuels in furnaces did away with coal and therefore the supply of ‘gagazza’ became very remote, while the use of stone was rather cumbersome.  So crib enthusiasts turned to another medium, papier mache.  This made cribs more solid and lightweight; however it presented a problem of storage.  For this reason, cribs were very often destroyed after Christmas Another interesting aspect of the Crib is the evolution of the statuettes or ‘pasturi’. 

The first artistic figurines were rather expensive and therefore beyond the ordinary man’s reach. So he devised his own method of making ‘pasturi’.  Using earth clay, he shaped what looked like very rugged figures.  Paint helped to define the face, hands and clothes.

More enterprising, if not talented persons, created plaster moulds into which soft earth clay was pressed to produce figurines.  These were produced in large numbers and sold for a ‘penny’ (today it would be €0.09).  Some specimens of these statuettes still exist and are treasured in private collections. These are known as the ‘pasturi tas-sold’ – sold being the Maltese word for penny.  Candle wax was also used in moulds to make replicas  of Baby Jesus and other statuettes.

Towards the middle of the 20th Century, and particularly after the end of World War II, new customs and traditions were brought into Malta from abroad. Local traditions and folklore were pushed aside.  Both in Malta and abroad, the Crib became just another Christmas decoration and due to the work required in its building, it lost its popularity to make way for the Christmas tree and other easy to mount decorations. The mass production of plastic figurines, dressed in contemporary clothes and painted in bright styles, which looked more like miniature dolls or puppets, lacked the prestige of the individually made 'pastur' and helped to deteriorate the tradition even more.

In  the year 1907,  the Society for Religious Doctrine, known as  M.U.S.E.U.M., was set up.  Urged by  by its motto, ‘VERBUM DEI CARO FACTUM EST’, which means: ‘The Word of God was made Man’,  this Society, under the leadership of its founder, Saint George Preca, made it its task to re-kindle the love for the real Christmas.  Each December, children were given a replica of Baby Jesus or a small crib as a gift.  Another initiative of this Society was the holding of a procession on Christmas Eve during which a life-size replica of Baby Jesus was carried by members of the society while religious Christmas carols were sung.  The first of these processions was held in 1921.  Such processions still form part of the Christmas Eve scene in Malta’s towns and villages.

The crib building tradition in Malta was also kept alive by a few enthusiasts who built sizeable cribs and exhibited them to the public.  It was thanks to these persons that the custom of crib building in Malta did not vanish altogether.Cribs in Malta

In 1986, a group of Crib enthusiasts got together and formed the ‘FRIENDS OF THE CRIB SOCIETY’.  The  scope of the group was specific: to keep the crib tradition in Malta alive.  During the years that followed, the Society managed to re-kindle the love for the Crib and to attract no less than three hundred active members.  During the year, even when Christmas is still ‘far away’, members of the Society get together to discuss various aspects of the crib, listen to lectures about the history of the crib in Malta and abroad and also watch demonstrations on crib building given by the older members of the society.  Various techniques, materials and styles are shown and discussed.  Practical sessions, where members start building their, perhaps, first crib, are organized and heavily attended especially by new members. 

Every year, during the weeks preceding Christmas, the Friends of the Crib hold an exhibition of works by their members.  About one hundred cribs of various shapes and sizes made from different media such as  papier mache, polystyrene, cork, etc., are put together to offer visitors, locals and tourists alike, the true story of Christmas, THE BIRTH OF BABY JESUS. 

Text by the Malta Crib Society Malta






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