Memories from Malta and Gozo. In the Maltese psyche is fire in general as well as fireworks, bonfires and torch light parades in our DNA? Bonfire night in Newick brings it all back

By Albert Fenech

I was reading Lyn Funnell’s excellent article on Bonfire Night in Newick on 5th November in Unknown Kent and Sussex published on 30th October, and it brought back loads of nostalgic memories.

Let me explain.

I was born and raised in Malta and am DNA 100% Maltese but at the age of almost eight, my father having rejoined the British Royal Air Force we decamped to reside in England.

Bonfire for the feast of St John the Baptist every 24th June

Our first destination was East Dulwich in London and then Forest Hill also in London. From there we moved to Goldington Green in Bedfordshire to be near RAF Cardington and then to Shortstown which was part of Cardington Camp.

We reverted to Malta for two years when my father was overseas posted to RAF Ta’ Qali in 1958 and 1959 where I attended the Royal Naval School Tal-Handaq, also attended by Lyn Funnel!

On return to UK we resided in Herne Hill in London as my father was stationed at RAF Calshot, near Southampton, and then RAF Faldingworth in Lincolnshire.

Church commemoration of St John ritual

My father then bought a house in West Norwood in London but for a while we also moved to Market Rasen in Lincs before returning to London when my father was allocated to the Air Ministry which then was at Whitehall in London.

Over the last 45 years, West Sussex became my second home because of multiple annual trips to stay with my late lifelong friend Glyn Genin who for many years was Picture Editor of the Financial Times group.

And why do I mention all this – because year after year, our family residence everywhere in England highlighted by Bonfire Night.

Why was this?

In our Maltese DNA Psyche?

Because now that I am mature and old I have realised that fireworks, bonfires and torch light parades are in our Maltese DNA and have been for many centuries. Bonfire Night was in our blood!

The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (a composure of European nobility with military intent but primarily Hospitaliers who provided medical welfare that has today resulted in the St John Red Cross Ambulance Brigade) , were in Malta from the early 1500s to the late 1700s – and every year 24th June was a highly special occasion.

This is the feast day of St John and the Knights made sure that to mark the event a bonfire be held in every town and village and this custom lasted for hundreds of years. After WWII this mainly died out but has nowadays been revived!

The Siggiewi Laferla Cross

Easter was always marked out as a commemoration fire date. When the Laferla Cross was mounted on a hill in Siggiewi in 1903 and renovated in 1963 it became the focus for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday fire-torchlight uphill processions and is still today, preparing for the Easter passions.

After Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday morning broke out with a scintillating display of fireworks celebrating the Resurrection.

Fire torchlight processions up to the Laferla Cross

Yet and yet, the greatest event is that of MNARJA always held on the night of 28th June and the whole day on June 29. The tradition has been long-standing for centuries and is still very much cherished today.

MNARJA comes from the Italian word “LUMINARIA” corrupted into slang Maltese. It means “LIGHT” and of course is a descendant of the Arabic and Oriental “Day of Light” at some time during Malta’s past.

The spacious venue for the event was developed at the foot of magnificent Verdala Palace (then often used by the Knight Grandmasters as their plush summer residence).

Easter midnight – celebrating the Resurrection

Dedicated to the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul a wood with multiple walking lanes was established, initially for hunting trips by the Knights but eventually made available to the public as a relaxation zone.

Over the years various events were introduced including Maltese folk singing and dancing, domestic animal displays and competitions as well as fruit and vegetables display.

Uppermost were the introduction of stalls with seating and a menu of fried or grilled rabbits – tremendously popular in the Mediterranean and particularly in Malta and Gozo.

Bound up as part and parcel of tradition was the UNWRITTEN OBLIGATION that as part of wedding vows, a prospective groom had to promise to take his prospective wife ANNUALLY to Mnarja festivities!

On the eve of 29th June the lanes were lit by fire torches accompanied by the glaring fire from cooking stalls.

Grilled and fried rabbit for Mnarja at Buskett

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Also to commemorate the feast on the fast day road races for horses were organised in various localities, the major one being in Rabat in Gozo.

So yes, no wonder when we lived in England, Bonfire Night was a natural magnet for us to encapsulate the memories of all these events.

As I wrote, yes, ALL these are in our Maltese psyche and DNA!



  • Albert Fenech

    Albert Fenech was born in Malta in 1946. His family moved to England in 1954 where he spent boyhood and youth before in 1965 returning to Malta. He spent eight years as a journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking a career in HR Management Administration with a leading international construction company in Libya, later with Malta Insurance Brokers, and finally STMicroelectronics Malta, employing 3,000 employees, Malta’s leading industrial manufacturer. Throughout he actively pursued international freelance journalism/ broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel. He has written in a number of publications both in Malta and overseas, as well as publishing two e-books. For the last eight years he had been writing a “Malta Diary” with pictures for Lyn Funnel’s international travel magazine.

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