Festa culture, community spirit and the construction boom which threatens them

MaltaSketches met with Jonathan Mifsud and Mario Zammit, the activists of Mqabba Santa Marija feast, to talk about what happens behind the scenes of the festa, the changing communities and overdevelopment which threatens the festa culture.

To us, the audience, fireworks is a colourful show. What is it to you?

Mario: First of all, it’s a tradition – an old tradition which has been passed from generation to generation and is especially strong in small villages like Mqabba, Qrendi, Zurrieq. It is a tradition which kept growing in strength. As children, we grew up in the spirit of feasts and fireworks.

Jonathan: The passion for fireworks and feasts begins from childhood. The older generation, those above 60 y.o. who are working at our fireworks factory, still remember the adventures associated with fireworks in those days. They used to collect remains of fireworks from the fields and play with them – something which is unimaginable today.  Unlike today, safety awareness was non-existent. To some, fireworks mean burnt fingers and scars – but childhood memories are still precious.

How long does it take you to prepare to the feast?

Mario: A year and more (smiling). On 16th of August, a day after the feast, we start cleaning the warehouse. Then we estimate how much fireworks we need to sell for the coming year – our main source of funds comes from selling fireworks. We mainly sell to other feasts and sometimes – to private organisations. The profit is then distributed between 25-30 people so that they can buy the necessary materials for the next round of fireworks.

Are the workers employed at the factory full-time or are they volunteers?

Jonathan: We are all volunteers. Passionate volunteers! On Saturdays – and even Sundays – we find them working from 6 am. Persons who work in shifts dedicate all their free time to working at the fireworks factory.

Mario: And the volunteers who have a full-time job starting at 8am come to work at the factory at 5am. They are committed!

Jonathan: We have to plan rigorously and this plan corresponds to the seasonal change of weather. We prepare materials for the fireworks before February, when the weather is still cool. After February, when rain stops, petards can be left outside to dry up. Then we start assembling materials into fireworks.

In our calendar, every month marks a phase of firework manufacturing. For example, black pigment comes from vine. Vineyards in Malta are cut in January which means that January for us is the month of stocking up on vine. The stock will dry up and the black pigment will be used for the feast of the following year. Right now, we already have the vine stock for 2018. After the feast, in September, we burn vine and turn it into powder and this powder is then used during the whole year.

The volunteers are installing the main firework display. Assembling of this sophisticated structure demands sharp precision and launching it requires a special software. This time, the fireworks are operated using a software made in Gozo.

Correct me if I’m wrong but my impression is that all your daily routine and lifestyle is entirely tied to fireworks

Mario and Jonathan: exactly! There are so many things which are going behind the scenes and are invisible to outsiders but mean a world to us.

Firework manufacturing is a demanding process. We prepare everything from scratch, a lot of work goes into it. It would be impossible to put so much effort without passion and commitment.

Jonathan:  What is also hidden behind the scenes is that many more people contribute to the process in one way or another.  Farmers give us sacks, for example. Instead of throwing away empty sacks of rabbit food, they give them to us. We also collect anything which is going to be thrown away but can be re-used. So yes, we reuse and recycle (smiling)!

What truly amazes me about Mqabba Santa Maria fireworks is their precision and perfect timing. Let’s be frank: such precision and attention to detail are not common in Malta (I’m not saying it with disapproval). How do you manage to achieve such precision?

Mario: It is difficult. A firework is a controlled explosion and getting it right requires experience and knowledge of physics and chemistry. Since precision here is about splits of a second, we ensure precision of the petards’ length up to a millimetre.

Another aspect is planning and calculating it well. When we plan fireworks of elaborate shapes, we need to calculate all the parameters – distance between the petards and time of release because we cannot practice beforehand.

How do you decide on patterns? Do you all discuss them or everyone does his bit?

Jonathan: Everyone has a special role in the process so yes, we divide responsibilities. For example, I’m in charge of colour multi breaks and Mario creates day fireworks. Each one of us is a designer and manufacturer at the same time. Another volunteer creates ball-shaped fireworks and another one is in charge of a tower crane fireworks show. Everyone has his own niche where he feels most confident and comfortable and knows the process from A to Z.

How did you acquire this knowledge?

Mario: It is passed from generation to generation. Experience is precious. In order to launch a firework into the sky, we need gunpowder. Say, a 50 kg firework requires a certain amount of gunpowder. If that certain amount is exceeded, then the firework will explode on the ground whereas a fewer amount simply will not lunch it.

We also attend courses on safety held by the police. Such courses do not teach the craft per se but they instruct what ingredients should not be mixed together and what safety procedures need to be followed. We also make sure to get the ingredients from the approved suppliers which have already been tested in Spain and Italy.

Connecting petards to the firing system requires dedication and attention to detail

Does your team have secret tricks?

Mario and Jonathan: every volunteer has his secret (laughing). Other firework factories and their volunteers have their secrets too – we all have that in common.

Another aspect which puzzles me a lot is that feasts are not mere celebrations, they are competitions of a kind. Why does festa bring on competition? Isn’t celebrating something enough?

Mario: You are right! There is a lot of pride in it. We take pride in what we do and we keep our secrets safe.

Jonathan: But this is the way it is. Taking pride in what we do and showing that we are the best is part of the drive. In the past we had to experiment much more – partially because the imported ingredients were not of sufficient quality – so every year we would do our best to establish the best possible ratio. That is a lot of effort and creativity and we ought to respect our efforts.

To be honest, this individualistic spirit rather saddens me…

Mario: Although different clubs compete when it comes to the show, it is not only about competing. We also collaborate – by sharing the firing tubes because not every fireworks factory has its own tubes. We share the firing system between four clubs as well. For example such a system costs about 10K Euro so we split the expenses between the clubs in order to afford it and everyone uses it during their feast.

What would be your life without fireworks? Say, if fireworks are banned tomorrow, what would you do?

Jonathan: No way! We would go abroad. Joking apart, our life is rotating around the fireworks and the feasts in general. Fireworks give us purpose, passion and certainty. Every month we see what needs to be done for the feast, we look forward to it. Only one week in a year – the week after the feast – is not connected to fireworks. Although even then we often go and help out at other feasts.

Is there any other club you admire?

Mario and Jonathan: Now, it’s a difficult question!

Mario: I’d say that every club in Malta develops a relationship with other clubs or organisations. We do not exist in vacuum. We are not exception in this case. For example, recently we have built a relationship with Munxar in Gozo – a village of only 700 people. Last year we produced some fireworks for their feast (just a 5 minute show) and we became good friends. We pay each other visits, invite each other for barbecues. Some people from Munxar even came to our feast and spent a week in Mqabba. We’ve developed a bond – so it’s not only about competing, it’s about friendship too… (smiling)

This is great news! You even managed to create ties between Malta and Gozo (smiling)

Jonathan: if you like to put it this way – yes. Last year, only 5 of us came to set the fireworks in Munxar, this year we were 25. You can imagine 700 Munxar people and 25 Mqabba people all crazy about fireworks. It was spectacular!

Do you think that public attitude towards feasts and fireworks in Malta is changing? Do you sense any decrease of enthusiasm or growing disapproval of the tradition in general?

Mario: Yes – and this change in attitude is not related only to fireworks. The idea of a desired lifestyle is changing a lot.

Jonathan: To me, it has a lot to do with how Mqabba community has changed in the recent years. Mqabba now has new residents who moved here from other parts of Malta and from other countries and they do not share the same passion for the feast, they do not feel being part of this culture. A German friend of mine, for instance, chose to live next to the field from which we release fireworks. The way we celebrate by setting fireworks at 8am is alien to him (smiling).

In the past we had a consensus and a shared enthusiasm. The two feasts of Mqabba used to compete with each other but the tradition itself was not threatened. Today it is no longer so.

Mario: However, the lack of enthusiasm for feasts is not only limited to foreigners. To be fair, some foreigners appreciate it more, they see it as something interesting and exotic whereas to the Maltese from the areas where festa is not prominent, say Swieqi, our work means nothing. To them, what we do is just crazy and meaningless noise.

So I would say that it’s the certain class of Maltese which disrespects festa most. They constantly complain about feasts and refuse to recognise anything positive about our work.

I agree with you. I also sense a strong wave of criticism towards the festa culture from urban middle class Maltese. One of their arguments, however, is that fireworks are not only noisy but also harmful for the environment. And this is where I disagree with them most.

Let’s focus on development, for example. I think development of open spaces needs to be challenged collectively and a strong, united community would be able to defend itself. The areas which are most affected by the construction boom – Sliema, St. Julians, Swieqi – are the areas where community spirit (and as you’ve said, festa tradition) is practically non-existent. This weakened community cannot withstand the pressure from developers and is doomed to lose. On the other hand, feasts keep communities united and this united community can put up a fight and has a chance – and a common motivation – to win.

Mario: The increasing density of buildings – not only in Mqabba, in Malta in general – means that more and more feasts are finding it difficult to let the fireworks from the same place. Whenever buildings come too close, they have to find other open places. This creates tension. I think it is a matter of survival that all the firework clubs become united for this cause. In this case, we have a common goal and we need to join forces instead of competing.

Jonathan: I remember a case a few years ago where there was a proposal to construct a villa on an open area.  This open area was used as a firework launching site. Had the permits been approved and site been developed, this firework factory would not have been granted a police permit for letting off fireworks.  I recall that both the rival local village band clubs together with their Local Council and other local NGO joined forces and objected constructively to the PA together. This case illustrates that working together for a common goal is possible despite the competition between local feasts. I cannot agree with the accusations that feast clubs threaten the environment! On the contrary, we help to protect open spaces from construction.

The negative effect of the construction boom also reveals itself indirectly: this year it was a true challenge to find planks of wood to support our main firework display – they all are being used at construction sites!

Would you be interested to collaborate with the environmental NGOs to strengthen the resistance to overdevelopment?

Mario: As I have said, protecting open spaces is important to us. But the initiative should first come from Malta Fireworks Association rather than individual clubs. The Association is the voice of the firework activists in Malta.

What do you think is the future of the festa tradition?

Mario: In synchronising fireworks with music. The problem, however, is that there aren’t enough of firing systems for this type of show. We were pioneers in it 10 years ago but now every village wants to do its own pyro musical show meaning that demand and competition are increasing. But looking at the bright side, I’d say that festa tradition is still alive because it evolved and always adapted to the challenges of time.

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The volunteers of Festa Titulari Santa Marija with their rivals – volunteers of Festa Madonna tal-Gilju

The fireworks which took a whole year of preparations are neatly labelled and stored on the factory premises .


Tower crane fireworks display is set up and ready for the show


2014 in Pictures

Traditionally, the final post of the year is dedicated to a selection photos and the stories behind them. Many thanks to all the followers for their interest and shares! Happy New Year 2015!



On a cold windy Saturday a woman was selling narcissi at the farmer’s market. The contrast between the tender, sunlit flowers and the gloomy sales person was striking. She seemed absolutely uninterested in what was going on around her, not even paying attention to a few potential customers.



The Malta Experience

If Maltese population is to be described in two words, it would be ‘politicized’ and ‘segregated’ that fit best (http://raisatarasova.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/malta-lovely-yet-overly-politicized/). Truly, politics in Malta is a very sensitive topic, thus, in previous years poking fun at politicians in a direct manner at carnival was not allowed. This year, however, the taboo was finally abolished and politics became the central topic for the carnival in March 2014. Politicians caricatures were waving from the floats and walking down streets in Valletta – finally, Maltese got a permission for something they had been longing for. On the photo below, Nationalist party leader, Simon Busuttil, floats above the crowd of Labour supporters.

The Malta Experience
The Malta Experience


The First Feast of the Year

Passion for celebrations is another signature of Malta. Starting from St. Publius feast in Floariana, the country dives into enormous bustle of street celebrations, ‘bombi’ and fireworks (http://raisatarasova.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/malta-not-a-day-without-a-celebration/). To be fair, not everyone in Malta is a fan of fireworks yet sounds of blasts rolling from one shore to the other silence their disagreement.

The First Feast of the Year
The First Feast of the Year


Midsummer Evening

The view from the Hastings Gardens in Valletta is one of the best on the island, many came to enjoy it on the longest day of the year. I could see a group of teen-aged guys, jumping on the thick walls of the gardens – such a good shot! – yet missed the moment of the jump by a split second. Every missed good shot feels like a dream which will never come true. Thankfully, midsummer nights are filled with joy and leave little time to revisit moments of sadness.

Midsummer Evening
Midsummer Evening



BirdLife Malta organised a few boat trips for the public to admire colonies of Yelkouan shearwater, migratory species of birds that can be easily recognised by specific raucous cackling calls in the breeding season. When the boat came closer to the colony raft, most of the passengers reached the state of delight and euphoria, seeing the birds flying very close by. Cameras were clicking hundreds of times per minute, exclamations of excitement and wows dominated our little boat. I was standing there, in the middle of it, failing to share this passion and unable to feel that way, once again struck by the evidence of how many different passions there are in the human world. What possibly is the most exciting thing in the world for one might mean nothing to the other.



Fireworks of Mqabba

The little village of Mqabba in the south of Malta is renowned for it’s state-of-the art pyroshows. The show attracts thousands of visitors, Maltese and foreign, eager to see what is claimed to be the finest fireworks in the world.

Fireworks of Mqabba
Fireworks of Mqabba

The New Valletta Entrance

As has been mentioned above, in a simplified yet still realistic manner, the Maltese population is divisible into ‘Labour’ vs ‘Nationalist’, ‘pro-hunting’ vs ‘against-hunting’ and in 2014 it also became ‘Renzo Piano’s project fans’ vs ‘Renzo Piano’s project haters’. Whereas the new City Entrance is praised by some, it is passionately rejected and criticized by others. The Entrance and the New Parliament Building are often called an ‘eye-sore’ and a ‘pigeon house’. In my opinion, the Entrance is simply stunning with its clear lines and the beauty of architecture which calls for associations with Ancient and Medieval times. The new steps, however, unite the fans and the haters. Yes, I love them too!

The New Valletta Steps
The New Valletta Steps


One Funny Russian Wedding

Unlike the current Maltese wedding customs, Russian weddings are easy and informal. Frankly, most of Russians experience more than one wedding ceremony in their lifetime and keep it easy and informal. In Astrakhan (my hometown http://raisatarasova.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/astrakhan-where-east-meets-west-and-both-get-confused/)marriages are registered at the Wedding Palace the place where love oaths are part of every day routine. The formal wedding procedure does feel like routine: couples and their friends gather in front of the Palace, entering one by one, the continuation is standard: ‘I do’, signatures, kisses, a glass of champagne, walk out of the Palace on the path, covered with rose petals, a group photo. If you stay next to the Palace for longer, you would see a long line of couples walking in and out, taking the photo on those steps and you would also hear the elderly woman complaining about the mess (the petals) that she has to swipe after each and every couple. And off it all goes – couples drive away in cars, rose petals end up in garbage bags. Everything passes, love shall not :).

One Funny Russian Wedding
One Funny Russian Wedding

The Sun Worshiper

Mnajdra Temples in Malta are among the world’s most ancient man-made constructions, designed for the cult of equinox worship. On the 23rd September A broad range of audience gathered inside the walls of the Temples waiting for the first sunray. The misty sunrise almost ruined the scene leaving no trace of light on the altar. Slowly but surely, we all were becoming disappointed when at 7.30 am the sun finally managed to cut through the clouds and to light a path straight onto the altar. Greeting the sunrise at the ancient place over 5000 years old, where the mysterious civilization used to perform its cult, felt magical.

The Sun Worshiper
The Sun Worshiper


The Reflexion

This photo free from any stories and interpretations apart from the fact that it features Castille Place, the office of Prime Minister. Make your own, if you like.

The Reflexion
The Reflexion


Footprints on Sand

On one very sunny November day we ended up in Gozo for a field trip. The weather and the atmosphere was calling for an adventure (and it did come, not on that same day but later on). After a picnic, our group headed to Ramla bay, beautiful sandy beach in Gozo. Our footprints on the sand are now gone and we are not there but the memory of it survived.

The Footprints on the Sand
The Footprints on Sand

Big hugs, small kisses and best wishes! See you in 2015!

Malta: not a day without a celebration

Fireworks of Hal-Lija are often a work of art

Anybody who has spent at least a year in Malta eventually finds him/herself living in a movable feast. For a good half a year, from April till October, when the country is immersed into the season of celebrations, exploding salutes become your best alarm clock. As dusk approaches, bangs echo from one side of the country to the other, with clouds from salutes always floating over the horizon. Fireworks become an obligatory attribute to the night sky over the islands. “Wait. Wasn’t there a feast last week already?”, you ask yourself, loosing count of bangs, clouds, fireworks, paper trimmings, and finally getting used to the festive fever around. Without exaggeration, there is no summer day without a celebration in Malta. Weeks between Carnival and Saint Publius (the first feast of the year) are merely a short break to prepare more fireworks, cut paper trimmings and recharge energy for more fun.

The official explanation for this phenomenal bustle is too prosaic to believe it. According to it, there simply is a feast for each church in every village. Doesn’t it leave behind more than explains? Why not to combine forces into a fewer but bigger feasts? Or was it a mere coincidence that the patron saints of the utter majority of churches are those who occupy summer days in the religious calendar?

If a question “Why not to combine forces into a fewer but bigger feasts?” sounds logical to you then you do not know Maltese people a tiny bit. The Maltese are driven by a spirit of individualism. Just look around! Hardly you will find two identical doors next to each other, staircases often make a web on facades just because everyone prefers having a separate entrance (although, having a shared staircase could save some space for living). It’s always “us” and “them”, where “us” is restricted to a family or a village and “them” means everyone else. Sharing fireworks with someone else, you say? Total nonsense! The epitome of such individualism is a two-feast conflict in Zurrieq, where supporting both feasts would be a daring act of anarchy. That’s why humble fireworks of Qrendi melt in the sky next to grandiose fireworks of Mqabba. ”So what if THEIR feast attracts thousands? We have OUR OWN and that’s what matters most!”.

The religious component to a feast is more a legitimate justification for a need to celebrate than a true reason. Many Maltese are proud of THEIR church and THEIR statue but still, it is the need for an energy release and the colourful spots in the sky that sets the ball rolling. Oh, let’s just make every day as bustling as possible, who needs reasons for that? No matter what saint is it, let’s just splash it all out and stretch for as long as possible!

Or could it be that festive fever is the best remedy for the main country’s fear, the fear of silence? In Malta the term ‘ life’ is strongly associated with sounds, be it a church bell chime, hunters’ gunshots in the countryside, noisy motorcycles or exploding sounds of fireworks. Every salute strengthens the power of life in a battle against the threatening silence, leaving no space for it other than afterlife.

More articles about Malta: https://raisatarasova.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/malta-lovely-yet-overly-politicized/

Carnival in Valletta in 2014
Carnival in Valletta in 2014
St. Publius feast in Floriana
St. Publius feast in Floriana
One of the feasts in Valletta
One of the feasts in Valletta
Fireworks of Hal-Lija are often a work of art
Fireworks of Hal-Lija are often a work of art
People watching the famous pyro show in Mqabba
People watching the famous pyro show in Mqabba