I'm sure you are all aware of the world-famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro on of the biggest carnivals in the world! But did you know that the Maltese Islands celebrate Carnival (in Maltese, Karnival) also? Did you know that Karnival celebrations on the Maltese Islands date back further than the first Carnival in Rio de Janeiro?

The word carnival comes from the Italian words carne vale literally meaning 'meat is allowed', basically illustrating what Karnival is all about. It is celebrated in Malta the weekend before (or week leading up to) Ash Wednesday, where eating meat is not permitted as a Roman Catholic. So in short, Karnival is the Maltese and Gozitan's last chance to indulge, party and go crazy before giving everything up for Lent (the 40 day period of fasting leading up to Easter Sunday).

Karnival on the Maltese Islands dates as far back as the 1500s when the Knights of Malta ruled. The Grand Master Piero de Ponte however thought that these celebrations got too out of hand, too rowdy and couldn't tolerate any more wild celebrations given the religious meaning behind it all. It was to the point where the celebrations would have to be approved by the Grand Master and limited to invite-only. When Grand Master La Valette came along, even though he agreed to some point with Grand Master Piero, he let the ropes loosen a little, allowing people to wear masks - which was forbidden to do in Malta at the time. Masquerade balls was (and still is) a popular way of celebrating il-Karnival.


A Karnival ball celebrated at the Casino Maltese in Valletta a few years ago. Karnival in Malta is also older than the Venetian carnival! The idea of the masked balls dates back to the Knights of Malta. Photo credit: vallettasuites.com

Further in 1639, Grand Master Giovanni Paolo Lascaris (Juan de Lascaris-Castellar) issued an order prohibiting women from wearing masks and participating in any of the celebrations the Knight's organised, otherwise they would receive a penalty of public whipping.  Lascari was described to be a grumpy man who put a rain on people's parades, one of those who didn't like celebrations, laughter and fun. A term used among the Maltese in reference to this piece of history is "qisek wiċċ Laskri" which literally translates to "your face looks like Lascari's". When people use this term, they are usually telling the person that they are what I would call a 'party pooper'.

Other setbacks such as the plague in 1813 and the cholera outbreak in 1837 where over 9,000 people died, which was then followed by poverty, nearly had il-Karnival die out from Maltese culture and tradition.

The qarcilla or wandering farce – which also made a return in 2014 – was still held in the Valletta Carnival up to the early 20th Century. A man dressed as a notary read out a marriage contract in rhyming verse full of witticisms – some verging on the obscene – to a bride and groom.

The qarcilla is a poetic farce (which made a return in 2014) which was held in the Valletta up to the early 20th Century. A man dressed as a notary read out a marriage contract in rhyming verse full of witticisms (some really obscene) to a bride and groom. You can read 2014's qarcilla written by Trevor Zahra here.

Through out time however, il-Karnival has obviously reestablished itself and let out even looser, with today's celebrations a testament to that. With explosions of colourful floats parading all over the Islands, costumes better than Halloween's, traditional games like Kukkanja (or also known as cockaigne, introduced by Grand Master Zondadari in 1721) and dances like the Parata... Oh, and we can't forget the traditional Maltese sweet Prinjolata!


The spirit of il-Karnival ta' Malta. Dancing and parading in the streets of Malta. Photo credit: rebeccaellul.com

Karnival is celebrated across the Islands. In Malta, mainly in Valletta, Floriana and Paceville, and in Gozo, the best place to go for Karnival celebrations is In-Nadur. Apparently this is the one to go to, basically, they don't organise anything, and is literally all spontaneous.

This weekend I plan to have my own little Karnival in my kitchen at home and try my luck at making Prinjolata. I love cooking, especially when it's cooking the traditions of my heritage!

One day I will make the trip to indulge with the Maltese on Prinjolata, in a bright and colourful costume, to enjoy and experience the tradition of my heritage that is il-Karnival ta' Malta!


Prinjolata – A traditional Maltese dessert prepared especially for Carnival. The name 'prinjolata' comes from the word ‘prinjol’ which means pine nuts in Maltese. Photo credit: daviniahamilton.com


Wasal iż-żmien mistenni minn kulħadd

Iż-żmien li jġib il-ferħ tal-Karnival

U dan iż-żmien tixtieq ma jgħaddi qatt

U f’dan iż-żmien kuntent kulħadd ikun

U dan hu ta’ bilfors u bir-raġun

Jgħdi x-xjuħ u jgħidu t-tfal

Viva l-jiem tal-Karnival!

Published by Charmaine Cassar