My recollection of childhood Easters is bound to be overlaid with nostalgia, but even the most objective and unbiased of observers would agree that change has indeed descended upon the feast.
I returned to visit my childhood churches, and to rekindle my Easter spirit. It all started with the seven visitations. Ħamrun was, contrary to my memory of Easter Past, dead as a doornail. Deprived of any atmosphere, it was a deserted place: no longer were the streets busy with families walking together, forming tiny processions as they scurried from one church to another. There was one bigger procession snaking its short body through the narrow streets, but nowhere near the multitudes that used to descend on the streets on the evening of Maundy Thursday or the morning of Good Friday.
The closing down of a couple of places surely accounts, at least partially, for this dwindling participation. Another factor is the changing demographic of the town: already suffering an ageing population in my childhood, Ħamrun has now been turned into a multicultural town, home to a number of migrants who do not continue the tradition.
The churches themselves seem to have been prepared for the eve with a blatant lack of effort. Attendance surely did not serve as motivation: mostly empty, the small population filling the pews represented an older generation. In the past, these would have been full to the brim with people of all ages.
I recall the Franciscan Church used to harbour that magical Easter feeling, with incense scents welcoming you inside. Undergoing restoration, the scaffolding urged visitors to stay outside. The façade was restored just before Easter but, to my mind, that’s what remains of its past grandeur. All the other churches similarly failed to impress, both in terms of atmosphere and attendance.
There was one notable exception: the Madonna tas-Samra church, which looks like a chapel but is actually a sanctuary, always a landmark and still very much an obligatory visit during the evening.
The churches themselves seem to have been prepared for the eve with a blatant lack of effort
Fra Diegu Institute also used to be magical on the eve, and I headed there expecting to find its big courtyard garden lit up to welcome pilgrims to the small chapel inside. All I found, however, was a dark and abandoned garden, and a man at the door confirmed my fears: the place was not open anymore for visitations on Maundy Thursday. Back then, the institute was administered and managed by the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart but as their ages grew bigger, their numbers grew smaller till the inevitable happened.
Dejected, I exited the place wondering how such a lush oasis in the centre of an otherwise suffocatingly polluted urban area could be left to wither away. One can only hope that, one day, it shall also be resurrected.
The chapel at Theresa Nuzzo School, just next to the Tas-Samra church, another quaint little stop from my childhood visitations, was, unfortunately, also closed.
There is also national competition today when it comes to Easter activities, and other localities seem to have become popular as people flock to them from all parts of Malta. Siġġiewi, for instance, with its charming centre, quaint chapels and majestic parish, not to mention the Laferla cross procession and the myriad of candles paving the Via Crucis and dotting the town centre, together with band music and exhibitions, continues to attract huge masses: parking was so hard to find that the walk from the town centre to one’s car constituted a via crucis in itself.
Alas, here too, the shrine was closed and access to the Lunzjata chapel restricted as this is in danger of collapsing. As always however, the atmosphere here is truly reminiscent of Easter, although care should be taken to avoid commercialising the activity.
Whatever the reasons behind the lack of devotees marching around the street of Ħamrun, it is truly sad that such a wonderful tradition has given way to, well, nothingness. Thankfully, the Good Friday processions around the island are still going strong and remain invariably interesting despite having witnessed them more than I can count.
Another change for the worse is the amount of rubbish that litters our streets. Even in deserted places, this is the one thing that abounds. Everywhere, at all times.
The Prime Minister himself has addressed this issue, urging local councils to clean up the country. Prevention is better than cure however, and it would be far easier, and less costly, if we were simply to not litter so liberally. Such a simple measure, and yet seemingly impossible to implement. Somehow, it seems that littering is deeply ingrained in our society.
I remember one particular event in the past when I was working as a summer school teacher and we had taken the children on an excursion to Mdina. We were having a lunch break at the playground just outside the main gate, when I noticed one of the rascals littering the pavement with a wrapper, despite being seated exactly next to a bin. I obviously made the child pick it up and dispose of it properly, but given the amount of rubbish strewn all over the streets, I doubt it was a lone incident and, to be perfectly honest, I also have my doubts as to whether the child had learnt the lesson. In fact, I strongly doubt we, as a nation, will ever learn the lesson: it seems that littering is as Maltese as our delicious kwareżimal.
One thing that never changes when visiting places from your past is the inevitable constancy of change itself and the feeling that everything changes, someday, somehow. Some changes are for the better, others for the worse. One can only pray to experience more of the former and less of the latter, while keeping in mind, of course, that what one considers better and what one considers worse may also be subject to change.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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