Feasts and Traditions
Written by Frans Zahra
Among the feasts and traditions held at Zejtun in the past, there was, for example the Candlemass Feast (February 2nd), when the sexton or some other persons used to drive a cart to distribute candles topped with a round head, coloured gold with the image of the Virgin Mary.
In the Feast of the Holy Cross, celebrated on May 3rd , besides the solemn high mass celebrated in the evening a procession with the relic of the Veru Lignum (True wood) used to be held. This relic consisted of a small silver cross which is displayed nowadays, on the Feast of the Cross (September 14th), on the altar of the Holy Crucifix. There is a special set of ecclesiastical vestments, a big umbrella, a processional canopy, the latter’s cover, a hanging canopy, a tabernacle’s cover and an antependium – all connected with this feast. The Veru Lignum used to be carried under the processional canopy. This reliquary, which contains a fragment of the Cross of Jesus, was once, during the Second World War, borne on the Good Friday procession by Bishop Emanuel Galea. When the defile arrived in front of the Palace “Aedes Danielis”, the British servicemen stationed there saluted the relic.
Two processions with the Holy Eucharist, held respectively in the morning and in the evening, used to solemnize the Feast of Corpus Christi (The Body of Christ). In the morning procession three Sacramental Benedictions used to be imparted, one at the Holy Saviour Chapel in lower Zejtun, one at the church of the Holy Spirit, and one at the chapel of Mary’s Delivery, also known as Mary’s Assumption, in upper Zejtun. When the evening procession entered the parish church, another Eucharistic Benediction used to be given.
The three days before the Feast of Lapsi which celebrates Christ’s Ascension into Heaven and which used to e held on a Thursday – hence Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were Rogation Days, when penitential processions were held, one used to proceed to old St Gregory’s, one to St Clement and one to the church of Our Lady of Mercy. This custom was introduced in Rome by Pope Pius III in 816 A.D. and soon spread all over the Universal church. The Litany of the Saints used to be chanted during the procession, while other prayers and psalms as the ‘supplication’ (requests) were recited – hence the Rogations. The diocese of Vienne at Dauphine in France had suffered terribly in the 5th century from earthquakes and other disasters; so, St Mamertus, the Bishop of the Diocese, organised pilgrimages with public prayers in the three days before the Feast of the Ascension.
A similar procession used to be held on the Feast of St Mark (April 25th). The defile used to head towards old St Gregory’s church, where the four main compass points were blessed, praying the Lord to provide bountiful harvests. Though I can only remember the procession that went to St Gregory’s, I have been told that a similar one used to proceed to the church of Our Lady of Mercy, with the same intention.
November 2nd – the day when prayers are said for the repose of Purgatory souls. Besides the graves in the charnel-house beneath the parish church, other tombs in the churches of St Gregory, Our Saviour, the Holy Spirit, St Angelo Martyr and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, were also blessed. On November 2nd, a huge decorated symbolic coffin was raised on a platform, covered by a black yellow-trimmed pall, with a golden chevron all around; a black pillow was placed on the coffin. All was encircled by big benches with candles at each end, four high black candlesticks with candles carrying pictures of skulls – two of which bearing an ecclesiastical biretta. This complicated outfit used to remain in church every day for about a week. Mass used to be celebrated for the repose of departed priests – hence a stole and a biretta were placed upon the pillow. As on the other days Masses were said for the repose of members of the Fraternities, differently coloured short capes were placed on the pillow, each day depending on the colour of the Fraternity – red for the Fraternity of the Blessed Sacrament; green for the Fraternity of St Michael; white for the Fraternity of the Holy Rosary and black for the Fraternity of Our Lady of the Girdle. In the past in the Zejtun church a man used to sit at the head of the departed person fanning a stone stove with incense on it. I am not aware whether this custom still exists in other parishes. Saver ‘il-Pinta’ and Carmelo Ellul ‘Xurubulu’ are said to have performed such a task. Mr Ellul, since at that all Masses were said in Latin, used to recite in a loud voice the Holy Rosary during the eight o’clock morning Mass with the participation of the congregation. Mr. Ellul was also very skilful in stringing rosary beads.
The Viaticum of the Sick used to be organised by the vice-parish priest when he felt the need or on a medical doctor’s certificate. Every third Sunday of the month, after the nine o’clock High Mass, a procession with the Holy Eucharist (called tertiary) used to go round the Main Square Cross and then Sacramental Benediction was imparted once the procession had entered the parish church.
Members of the Holy Sacrament Fraternity used to kneel in silent prayer before the Blessed Eucharist, resting their arms on the railings around the chancel. The Holy Sacrament used to be exposed on the monstrance throne during the Forty Hours of Adoration. The men used to kneel on long cushions stuffed with kapok. I remember an illiterate elderly Fraternity member near an hour-glass by means of which he could know the time for a full hour of adoration.
In bygone years several processions used to be held during the year: of the Holy Cross, St Joseph, St Michael, the Virgin Mary of the Girdle, the Virgin Mary of the Flower and of the Holy Rosary. For the last three processions, all dedicated to Our Lady, the same statue was shoulder borne, with a girdle, a bunch of flowers and the rosary beads respectively in her hands. On Charity Feast two men used to carry a basin with blessed bread. They wore a blue sash from right to left around their waist, the sash fastened by a sesame ring. The blessed bread used to be distributed as an act of devotion.
During Lent, the preachers of the Lenten sermons that started on a Sunday and continued for a full week, used to deliver their homilies from a special platform with a superimposed rostrum. This stand used to be erected facing the pulpit. An imposing Crucifix, presently raised on the main altar during Lent, was mounted on this structure, while a small picture of Our Lady of Sorrows was placed at the foot of the Crucifix. Obviously the preacher had also at his disposal a chair, a table, a microphone and an amplifier. The platform was reached by a set of wooden steps – the same one used nowadays to reach the Blessed Sacrament exposed on a monstrance throne. Different Lenten sermons were delivered specifically to females, males, young men and single women. During the week for males, the bars in the vicinity of the main square were kept closed. The last sermon was always delivered on the Feast of Our lady of Sorrows, when some confusion prevailed – with the preacher trying to deliver his sermon whilst preparations for the procession of Our lady were in full swing in the church itself!
The Altar of Repose (sometimes referred to as the Sepulchre) used to be set up on the altar of St Paul in the parish church, the number of Good Friday processional statues was less than at present. For a couple of years or so this altar of Repose was laid out on the altar of St Andrew, but then returned to its previous altar, where the statue of St Catherine is placed during St Catherine’s feast. This side aisle was closed by elaborately painted wooden frames resembling damask fabric adorned with Eucharistic symbols.
I remember that the Feast of the Way of the Cross used to be celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent, when a skilful preacher used to deliver a talk, nowadays known as ‘reflections’ on each Station of the Via Crucis.. the ‘Scuola Cantorum’ of the Juventutis Domus, accompanied by an orchestra, chanted responsorials in between the preacher’s talks. Between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the sexton or some helper went around the village distributing blessed olive leaves and accepting money contributions for the upkeep of the church. A certain Amabile (nicknamed ‘the lamb’) used to collect donations for the Feast of Our lady of Sorrows, whilst Don Carmelo Galea used to go round, collecting money almost every Sunday, either for the feast of St Joseph (as he was responsible for the upkeep of this altar and relative feast) St Michael, Rosary feast etc.
When the Good Friday Procession used to go through Habel ix-Xghir, a particularly narrow street, the wooden cross of the Crucifixion and Our lady of Sorrows statues used to be turned sideways. Nowadays these same crosses have been adorned with silver motifs and are still revolved to be able to get through the narrowness of this street.
The titular feast of St Catherine and its procession follow Holy Week. The route taken by this procession is the same route taken by the procession of Our Lady of the Rosary. It was only during Archpriest Brincat’s time, that the procurator of the procession, Don Giuseppe Desira, changed the route. Because of inclement weather, the processional route was set through St Gregory Street, St Monica Street, St Joseph Street and towards St Gregory’s church which route changed over time and remained unchanged to date. Four men, wearing black and carrying ornamental stands bearing the effigy of St Catherine used to walk in front of the statue during the procession. The effigy used to be lighted up by acetylene lamps.
During the Feast of Our Lady of Spiritual Doctrine (a feast normally celebrated in June), the streets were decorated in the same manner as on the feast of St Catherine. Actually the street decorations for the feast of Spiritual Doctrine were used for the feast of St Catherine. Throughout the two feasts, the two main band clubs participated and the whole scenario was illuminated by the sky and street fireworks displays. Teams of men, mostly coal workers, were in charge of the organisation of these two feasts. The banner which preceded the procession of Our Lady of the Rosary was likewise used to precede the process of Our lady of Spiritual Doctrine. And of course it was customary for the people of Zejtun to be in their best attire, possibly sewn for the occasion of these two feasts.