Carnival: time to express your alter-ego

“The suspension of societal norms may break down barriers, thus increasing the likelihood of interactions between people who might not normally interact in their daily lives.”

“Carnival can be cathartic. It can enable people to act in ways that they would not under normal circumstances. Costumes can give the liberty to people to act in a role which they would not embrace in their daily life. It is an opportunity to express their alter ego,” says Dr Katya De Giovanni,  a chartered occupational psychologist and Member of Parliament.

Speaking to The Journal on the psychological implications of carnival on society, she added that the preparations for, and anticipation of carnival may positively impact well-being by providing a sense of purpose.

“The very fact that there are competitions which are healthy will further motivate carnival companies to do their very best to attain a positive result,” she added.

Dr De Giovanni expressed interest in the fact that, these days, carnival companies are not only hailing from the capital city but have found their way in many towns and villages across the islands. Although the main festivities are carried out in Valletta, there is a healthy sense of competition, with each company bringing in a little bit of their town or village culture to the capital.

Speaking on the temporary suspension of social norms during carnival she said that this encourages people to behave in ways which they might not typically exhibit.

“The temporary freedom from social constraints is liberating and cathartic, allowing individuals to express themselves more openly and to engage in activities otherwise considered unorthodox. The suspension of societal norms may break down barriers creating a more egalitarian environment, thus increasing the likelihood of interactions between people who might not normally interact in their daily lives,” observed De Giovanni.

Dr Katya De Giovanni

Where does all this tomfoolery come from?

Carnival has been around before Christianity started. It has old roots that go back to ancient celebrations for gods and goddesses in places like Babylon and Egypt. For example, people in Babylon had parades for their god Marduk and in Egypt they celebrated Isis, who was seen as the goddess of life and light. The festivities marked the start of the year, saying goodbye to winter, and celebrating life and fertility.

Some parts of Carnival come from the Roman Saturnalia festival, which was full of eating, drinking, dressing up, and parades. The usual social rules were turned upside down: slaves could act as if they were the bosses, and men could dress like women. They even picked a temporary King who got to make up silly rules everyone followed. This idea of picking a King Carnival is something we still see today.

In Malta, we know that Carnival was happening by the early 1400s because there are records of rules about meat prices during the festival. The Grand Masters of the Knights of St John (1530-1798) really supported Carnival, but it then went through a period of resistance in the 19th century.

Despite that, it survived through British rule (1800-1964) and has been passed down through generations for about 600 years, keeping the tradition alive.

Brillante Mascherata, a coloured lithograph by Pietro Paolo Caruana, found at MUŻA – Malta National Community Art Museum, Valletta. Photo: Heritage Malta

When it was frowned upon

Grand Master Fra Giovanni Paolo Lascaris (1636–1657) is known for issuing a set of regulations in 1639 that restricted the wearing of masks and costumes to certain days of Carnival and banned women from participating in masked balls. These restrictions were likely motivated by concerns over public morality and the desire to maintain social order.

Under British rule, particularly in the 19th century, concerns over public order led to regulations that limited Carnival activities. The British were wary of large gatherings that could turn into anti-colonial protests. While specific governors or colonial administrators who enacted these policies are not always named in historical accounts, the overall British administration was responsible for imposing restrictions.

Of course, the World Wars created circumstances that led to the suspension or scaling down of Carnival festivities. The economic hardship, rationing of resources, and general atmosphere of austerity made the usual celebrations impractical or seen as insensitive.

Only recently, in 2021, traditional Carnival events were cancelled to comply with public health guidelines and restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Similarly, in 2022, ongoing concerns about the pandemic led to modifications in Carnival celebrations, with some events being cancelled altogether or conducted in a significantly reduced capacity compared to previous years.

What the Church says about it

The Archdiocese of Malta published an article on its website in 2019, in which it explains that, starting around the Middle Ages, various cultures around the world began establishing special traditions to celebrate before the start of Lent, a season of fasting. This period, known by names like ‘Mardi Gras’ or ‘Carnival’, is all about feasting and fun.

The main idea behind these festivities was practical: Lent’s strict rules meant no meat, dairy, or fats, so people used up these ingredients by making tasty treats instead of wasting them. This led to the term ‘Fat Tuesday’, the day before Ash Wednesday, highlighting the tradition of indulging before the fasting begins. It’s a bit like how bears eat a lot before hibernation, storing up energy before a time of scarcity.

However, there have been times when the celebrations went too far, with overeating or other excesses, leading some to treat Carnival as a chance to misbehave before Lent. To counter this, saints like St Ignatius of Loyola introduced spiritual practices, such as the Forty Hours Devotion, encouraging people to pray and reflect instead of giving in to temptation.

The Kukkanja at St George’s Square, Valletta, in the 18th century.

The article concludes that “in the end, there is nothing wrong with participating in the culinary delights of the Carnival season, especially for cultural reasons. However, virtue is never dispensed and Catholics are urged to maintain a faithful Christian spirit in the midst of the celebrations. Carnival is not a time to seek sin … Sin is always an offense against a God who loves and cherishes us as the apple of his eye.”

When it caused an uproar

On 22nd February 1846, an event unfolded that nearly led to a disastrous outcome, but fortunately it was narrowly avoided. The incident took a somewhat humorous turn when Sir Patrick Stuart, the British Governor at the time, banned the wearing of masks during Carnival Sunday. This decision did not sit well with the Maltese, who creatively protested by dressing up their animals — horses, mules, donkeys, dogs, and others — in costumes and parading them through the streets of Valletta.

Tensions between the British Protestant rulers and the Maltese Catholic population were already high, and the Maltese response to the mask ban added fuel to the fire. Some of the costumes mocked Protestant clergy, which further aggravated the British. The situation escalated when a group of Maltese youths attacked bandsmen from the 42nd Highlanders. This regiment is one of the most renowned in the British Army.

The event reached a critical point, and had the Highlanders been ordered to disperse the crowd, a violent conflict could have ensued, potentially resulting in significant bloodshed. Thankfully, such an order was never given, and a tragic confrontation was averted.

Much more recently, in 2020, a controversy arose over a Carnival float that depicted Archbishop Charles Scicluna and a Church residence with implications of child abuse. Titled ‘Jude’s Hell’ — with ‘Jude’ being a middle name of Mgr Scicluna — the float featured the exterior of the St Joseph children’s home. The Catholic religious order managing the Ħamrun St Joseph orphanage had previously warned they would pursue legal action should the float be allowed to parade through the streets of Valletta.

The creator of the float shared progress pictures on Facebook, captioning them with a controversial remark that hinted at silence regarding the alleged abuses. Responding to the situation, the Archbishop’s spokesperson said that, although Mgr Scicluna welcomes satirical representation of public figures, the nature of this float was deemed offensive and potentially defamatory.  The float was not allowed to participate in the celebrations.

When it was tragic

On the night of 11th February 1823, during the final hours of Carnival, a tragic event occurred involving 110 boys between the ages of 8 and 15. As they were exiting the Minori Osservanti convent on Strada Sant’ Ursula in Valletta, after being entertained as part of the Carnival festivities, they found themselves in a dangerous situation. A doorway, which should have been open to allow them to leave, remained closed. As more children pushed forward from behind, unable to stop due to the crowd, those at the front were crushed and suffocated in the corridor.

The corridor with stairs where the incident took place.

2024: Expect some rain

Two centuries later, rain is expected to fall on the Maltese islands between Sunday and Tuesday, but so far this is not expected to stop the planned activities.

This year, a record-breaking number of companies will be participating in the competitive dance shows, marking a significant milestone for the event. The main carnival celebrations in Malta are set to take place in Valletta, which hosts the country’s primary carnival activities.

The festivities started yesterday night, featuring King Carnival leading a parade that made its way down Republic Street to St George’s Square in Valletta. The excitement continues over the weekend with the competitive dance shows, which have a packed schedule including an afternoon session today, Saturday, beginning at 4pm and a morning session on Sunday starting at 10am.

On Sunday, attendees will have the opportunity to enjoy a traditional Qarċilla performance for free. This unique theatrical experience will take place on Ordnance Street, adjacent to Pjazza Teatru Rjal, with shows scheduled at 3pm, 4pm, 5pm, and 6pm. Additionally, these performances will be part of an ongoing series throughout the week at Spazju Kreattiv, offering multiple opportunities to experience this distinctive aspect of the festivities.

The celebratory atmosphere will extend into Monday with another parade that will animate the streets of Valletta from the morning into the evening. The culmination of the carnival festivities will be a grand finale on Tuesday, taking place along St Anne’s Street in Floriana, promising to end the celebrations with a spectacular display.

More information on this year’s carnival events here.

Will you be expressing your alter-ego this Carnival? Send us your photos on [email protected].

Main photo: Facebook

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