Women wearing their ‘għonnella’ (traditional cape-like garment) accompany their children to school. A peasant wearing a cap and a waistcoat herds his goats down the street, on the lookout for clients wanting to buy some fresh milk, as a swaddled baby wearing a skull-cap (‘skufja’) looks on. Stray dogs mingle with the vivacious goats in the street, while automobiles vie with horse-drawn ‘karozzini’ for right of way, and a policeman dressed in a British uniform tries to coordinate it all.
Not Republic Street as you know it, is it? The scene described, in fact, was a typical day in 1933, a time when Malta was still under British rule. Much has changed since then, and many traditions have been lost, or if not, are only still hanging on by a thread.
While it is obviously imperative for a country to evolve and improve with time, not only economically, technologically, and artistically, but also with regards to mentality and culture, it is also a pity that certain traditions are being forgotten. Each generation moves one step further away from our past and heritage, and though mentions of certain skills, customs and practices are sporadically brought up, this is not enough to bring them to life.
Let us take, for example, the għonnella. Described as a ‘peculiar black headdress’ worn by Maltese women of age, this type of cape is to be found nowhere else in the world. There are many legends and stories about how and where the għonnella originated, but none are corroborated by any kind of evidence. Following the Second World War, the għonnella fell into disuse, particularly with the appearance of new trends and fashions.
The purchase of fresh milk today has nothing at all to do with bleating goats stomping and defecating in front of your door, and karrozzini are used only as a tourist attraction and not as an actual or practical mode of transportation.
Apart from these, there are many, many other Maltese customs and traditions which, I am sorry to say, future generations may know nothing about, at least unless we make it a point to revive them.
Maltese Lace – The creation of beautifully worked handkerchiefs, table centre pieces, bridal veils, as well as other items of clothing, with the specialised use of a lace pillow (trajbu) made out of straw, bobbins (ċombini), needles and thread. Maltese lace is worked patiently and over a period of time, each piece is very detailed and each weaver has her own particular style.
Although in the past, lace making was quite common for Maltese women, after the war this tradition diminished more and more until nowadays only a few people practise it as a special pastime, or as a gift or to sell individual pieces, but not as a commercial industry.
In 2005, six weavers established the Malta Lace Club, with the aim of keeping the interest for this skill alive.
Want to know more? Go to maltabulb.com
The art of filigree (Il-Filugranu) – this is an old art-form whereby fine delicate threads of gold or silver are woven together to produce beautifully detailed jewellery. Many craftsman are still learning how to create this kind of jewellery as there is a demand for it when it comes to tourism.
Maltese Folk Music (L-Ghana) – In the past, this traditional form of song, having its own cadence and rhythm, was a way for peasants to express themselves through song, and with the use of traditional instruments. One could hear them singing while coming home from the fields, or else warbling a love song in the early evening at the tavern, over a pint of beer. The most common form of ghana is known as Spirtu Pront, which is to say that the lyrics are created by the singers on the spur of the moment. This type of song is usually sung by two singers alternately baiting or joking with each other, daring each other to do something or simply to finish each other’s phrases. The singers were usually accompanied by one or more guitarists. While in the past, ghana was very common and often practised, today only specialised musicians perform it during very particular occasions, like, for example, the local parish feast.
It is truly a pity that skills which in the past, were part of daily life, today are only known to a few and experienced very seldomly.
Do you know anything about other Maltese skills or customs?
Why do you think these traditions are disappearing from our islands?