When you think of the word “Carnival” you probably have an image of people dressed in lavish costumes parading the street, or merrymakers on giant colorful floats. But did you know carnival actually means “free to eat meat?”

The term refers to the dietary freedom one had before entering the season of Lent. Christians observe fasts, sacrifice meat and do more charity during the 40 days until Easter.

On the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, Carnival celebrations started in the late 15th century. They began celebrations soon after Christmas, because the government subsidized the price of meat for festivities.

Scenic view of Malta

During the sixteen century (1519-62), the Knights of Saint John arrived in Malta, bringing with them a more sophisticated approach to carnival. Different kinds of cheese, lasagne, veal, wine and macaroni were added to the Carnival buffets.

The Italian Knights also introduced new customs of wearing masks. They would disguise their lovers and mistresses in men’s costumes and masks, so they could party with the women.

Maltese kids dressed as Knights

The Grand Master of the Knights of Saint John was not too happy with the way Carnival was celebrated, and prohibited wearing masks and cross dressing. Instead he introduced military tournaments, which he considered to be “more Knightly.”

Often times, there were multiple Carnivals held during the year. These were not associated with Lent, but more of a feast before going to war.

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta

Carnivals were also cancelled by the church if there was a robbery or a death. The church had their special inquisitors at the parties who would report the knights’ boisterous behaviors.

From the mid-18th century, Carnival began to look like as we know of it today. There were balls that lasted through the night. No one was allowed to leave until the break of dawn for security concerns.

The Italian Knights introduces Il kukkanja (the cockaigne), where men would climb a greasy pole to win rewards. This was quite a public spectacle but people lost their lives, so it was stopped. In the recent years it’s been reintroduced with many safety related controls such as nets and padding to prevent accidents.

During this period, Carnival floats were introduced and the first documented evidence shows a float with a scene in a hospital. 

The entire city of Valletta is a UNESCO Heritage Site

Until 30 years ago, children were not allowed to participate in the Carnival.

Now, all generations participate and the Carnival is a significant part of Maltese culture. It is not only a period to celebrate with food, dance, music, but also to express one’s political views. There are dance competition, parades of floats, war reenactments and comedy plays.

Kids in the streets of Valletta

Family and friends roam the streets of Valletta and Gozo, dressed in costumes (think of Halloween), munching on typical carnival sweets such as perlini (sugar coasted almonds) and prinjolata (carnival cake). Almost everyone participates in some form – dancing in groups, choreographing routines, sewing costumes, parading, creating Papier-mâché floats, operating machinery, selling candy and more!

Dance competition at St George’s square

The Maltese Carnival is a lively family-friendly affair that you need to check out at least once.