A Christmas trip down memory lane

15 records from the National Archives of Malta that shed light on some aspects of Christmas in Malta in the second half of the last century.

Today the world wakes up to the magic of Christmas morning.

Maltese Christmas is not just a celebration; it’s a rich recipe of traditions, history, and the spirit of community that has evolved through the years.

On this occasion, The Journal spoke to Leonard Callus, from the National Archives of Malta, who provided us with 15 records that shed light on some aspects of Christmas in Malta in the second half of the last century. 

As you go through these photos, you will notice of the impact of the war, our socio-economic realities as well as the political background that moulded life during this festive period.

1941

Food was becoming more scarce as an outcome of World War II.  The authorities were worried about people’s morale and were considering whether it would be possible to provide a better meal on Christmas at the Victory Kitchens spread all over the country.  These were communal kitchens, established during the war, to provide affordable and rationed meals, addressing food shortages.

Following a proposal from the village of Attard, they decided to use money from the Malta Relief Fund to provide a better meal on Christmas in 1941.  

The Malta Relief Fund was launched by Governor William Dobbie in the first days of the war. It was an initiative aimed at raising funds and coordinating relief efforts to alleviate the suffering caused by the war. It operated to gather financial contributions and essential supplies from various sources, both within Malta and internationally, to aid the civilian population.

Maltese people who had emigrated also contributed towards it. Contributions to the Relief Fund  arrived from Maltese that had settled in Cyprus, the United States of America, Canada, Australia Alexandria, Cairo, and other places.

The funds collected were used for various purposes, including providing food, medical care, and shelter to those affected by the conflict. The relief efforts were crucial in helping the Maltese people endure the challenging conditions of the war and rebuild their lives in the aftermath.

These initiatives were often organised through collaborations between the local government, charitable organisations, and international support networks. The Malta Relief Fund symbolises the collective humanitarian response to the wartime struggles faced by the people of Malta and highlights the importance of global solidarity during times of crisis.

1942

Malta was awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian decoration of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, for its extraordinary bravery and resilience during World War II. The George Cross was bestowed upon the entire population of Malta in recognition of our heroic defense against Axis forces and the significant sacrifices made by its people.

During the war, Malta served as a crucial naval and air base for the British in the Mediterranean. Our strategic importance made Malta a target for intense and sustained bombing campaigns by Axis forces, particularly the German and Italian air forces.

Michele Peresso (St Aloysius Press, Valletta) printed Christmas cards showing this medal.  Records at the National Archives indicate that, during the 1943 Christmas, Mr Peresso tried to sell some 2,000 cards that he had not managed to sell during the previous year, while others asked for a permit to print similar cards. Eventually, the George Cross was added to the flag of Malta in 1943.

1943 

The tide was turning.  In June, King George VI visted Malta, just a few months after the George Cross had been awarded to the island. This visit aimed to boost the morale of the Maltese population.

On 9th July 1943, British and American forces, supported by Canadian and other Allied troops, landed on Sicily. The invasion aimed to secure control of Sicily and open up the Mediterranean, providing a stepping stone for the later invasion of mainland Italy. The successful invasion of Sicily played a crucial role in the eventual fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascist government and the liberation of Italy from Axis occupation. It also set the stage for subsequent Allied campaigns on the Italian mainland, ultimately contributing to the broader effort to defeat Nazi Germany. The Italian Fleet surrendered in September.

In his upbeat Christmas message to the Maltese people, Governor Lord Gort recalled all these events and expressed his belief that the final defeat of Nazism was not far away.  Lord Gort was a British military officer and a prominent figure during World War II. He served as the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Malta during this crucial period in the island’s history.

In 1943, Christmas fell on a Saturday.  Government employees used to work longer hours on weekdays so that they do not work on Saturdays. The General Workers’ Union, set up few weeks earlier, forwarded a request on behalf of Government employees to be awarded a half day off on Friday, being Christmas eve and new year’s eve.  The request was turned down.

1946 

In 1946, Malta, like many other places around the world, was recovering from the devastating impacts of World War II.

The island had suffered extensive damage to its infrastructure during the war, particularly due to intense bombings. Rebuilding efforts were underway to repair and reconstruct homes, buildings, roads, and other essential facilities. Many Maltese families had experienced hardship, loss, and displacement. Efforts were made to address the social and humanitarian needs of the population, including providing assistance to war refugees and veterans. This was also a time when discussions about Malta’s political status were gaining momentum. The island’s political leaders were advocating for greater self-determination and autonomy. The desire for constitutional reforms and increased representation in governance marked the political landscape of the time.

In October, the Governor’s office started the preparations for Christmas. This is a request for quotation for the supply of the Christmas cards to be sent by the Governor.

1948

English continued to be widely used in official documents, education, and administration. In 1947, the British government introduced constitutional reforms in response to the growing demand for self-government in Malta. These reforms granted some degree of self-governance to the Maltese people. Malta’s ties with the British Empire were still significant in 1948.

This is a letter by Dun Karm Psaila, the national poet, to his nephew Joseph P. Vassallo, then Director of Education.  Dun Karm promised Vassallo that he will send him a Maltese Christmas carol together with the music, so that it could be forwarded to Eric Posselt. 

In 1952 Posselt published The World’s Greatest Christmas Stories. The narratives vividly depict life in the 1800s to the 1930s, offering rich descriptions of the era while providing uplifting portrayals of family dynamics and the support of caring friends.

1952 

The first nationwide Christmas party for children was held at the Knights’ Hall, today the Mediterranean Conference Centre, in Valletta. Some 300 children participated.

This party developed into an annual Christmas event for poor children over the following 19 years, and the last one was held in 1970. Originally, this activity was tied to the children’s programme broadcasted on Rediffusion;  eventually the British servicemen stationed in Malta got involved.

At times, thousands of children were entertained in these parties and one of them was held on the aircraft carrier Ark Royal.

Frans Said, who was the main organiser of these parties, calculates that over the years some 40,000 to 45,000 children participated. National efforts to raise funds to organise this party were undertaken.

1955

A Christmas tree was set up in St Anne’s Street Floriana, one of Malta’s main thoroughfares. Around 70 years ago, the Christmas tree was fast becoming a popular feature of Christmas in Malta.

The introduction of the Christmas tree in Malta is likely to have occurred in the 19th century when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert popularised the custom of decorating Christmas trees in the United Kingdom.

As the influence of British culture spread to Malta during its colonial period, the Christmas tree tradition likely took root.

If we go further back in time, we will find that the Christmas tree tradition is believed to have originated in Germany in the 16th century. The story often involves Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer. According to the legend, Luther was walking through a forest one winter evening, and the beauty of the starlight shining through the tree branches inspired him.

When Luther returned home, he wanted to recreate the magical scene for his family. He cut down a small evergreen tree, brought it indoors, and decorated it with candles to symbolize the starlight he had witnessed in the forest. This is considered one of the earliest instances of a decorated Christmas tree.

1960 

The committee and members of Nadur Youngsters Football Club and their families sent a Christmas card to the Queen and expressed their wish to have her autograph. The club had been founded two years earlier. Eventually, the Palace replied that members of the Royal Family give their autograph to personal acquaintances.

The giving of autographs by members of the Royal Family is generally discouraged. Traditionally, royals have been advised to refrain from giving autographs to the public or personal acquaintances due to concerns about the potential misuse of their signatures. There have been instances where forged royal autographs were used for fraudulent purposes, and to minimise such risks the practice of royal family members providing autographs had been limited.

1962

Sir Maurice Henry Dorman (1902–1993) was a British colonial administrator who served as the Governor of Malta in the mid-20th century. His tenure as Governor of Malta happened during a crucial period marked by discussions on self-governance and constitutional reforms.

Governor Maurice Dorman started a Christmas tradition he followed up to the end of his tenure in 1971.  Every Christmas, he used to send oranges from Sant Anton Palace to the highest authorities, including the Queen and the UK Prime Minister. 

In this letter the Queen thanks him and informs him that the oranges were to be sent to Sandringham for Christmas. Sandringham House has been a private residence for the British monarch since it was purchased by Queen Victoria in 1862. It is typically used by the reigning monarch as a private residence and retreat.

1968

The Gozo Civic Council was an administrative and consultative body that existed as part of constitutional reforms in the mid-20th century. The council was created in 1960 and served as a form of local government for Gozo. Its purpose was to address the specific needs and concerns of the Gozitan population, allowing for a degree of self-governance and local decision-making. Its first election was held in June 1961.

In 1968, the Gozo Civic Council submitted a request for the setting up of a crib with music in Victoria’s Main Square, similar to that set up in Valletta. 

In December 1973, the Gozo Civic Council was dissolved by an act of Parliament. 

Best Wishes

The Journal would like to thank the The National Archives of Malta for this beautiful trip down memory lane.

We wish our readers a very merry Christmas. May the spirit of Christmas bring you happiness, peace, and goodwill.

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