Worldwide, there are many key events that signify the start of the Christmas season. The lights switching on in Oxford Street. John Lewis revealing their tear-jerking Christmas ad. The Christmas tree being unveiled outside the Rockefeller Center in NYC. Here in Gozo, our traditions celebrating Christmas joy centre around nativity cribs, our religious services and Ghajnsielem’s Bethlehem village.
When it comes to cribs, we mean nativity scenes depicting Joseph, Mary and newly born Jesus in the manger…and make no mistake, our islanders take nativity cribs very seriously! Throughout December if you visit any of Gozo’s villages you’ll see elaborate nativity scenes displayed in people’s homes showing Mary, Joseph and Jesus, often alongside life-size Kings, shepherds and livestock.
These cribs, called ‘presepju ’in Maltese are an important part of our Christmas traditions, with many of the statues and figurines handmade by family members or ordered especially from highly skilled local craftsmen. There’s a friendly rivalry among villagers to see who’ll display the best, most elaborate nativity scene. You’ll find beautifully lit nativity cribs alongside our churches, in the windows or porches of family homes, as well as in our schools and business foyers.
With so many nativity cribs displayed throughout the island, it’s no wonder this tradition recently paved the way for Crib Tours: Tours taking place throughout December taking visitors around Gozo’s most highly decorated villages to witness the nativity cribs on show, while enjoying some warming drinks along the way!
But, did you know Gozo actually has a full-size nativity village which opens throughout December and attracts attendees from all over the world? Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem is Gozo’s live animated Bethlehem village. The attraction is a must-do yearly event for many. Visitors enjoy stepping back in history, witnessing the life, customs and traditions from the time when Christ was born. This unique naturalistic village fuses traditional Maltese customs with that of the nativity story, hence its name which means Bethlehem in Għajnsielem.
Every December over 20,000 sqm of rural land at Ta’ Passi fields are transformed into this expansive, village, featuring a real inn, a bakery, a carpenter’s workshop, a working farm, a river. There’s even a small arena for gladiatorial combat where Romans and slaves battle it out. Not forgetting of course, the main focus – the live nativity crib where visitors observe Mary and Joseph inside the stable tending to baby Jesus.
Families visiting the village can pet many of the different animals and interact with the Bethlehem inhabitants as they go about their daily chores. You’ll see a horse turning the water mills, chickens and goats roaming around farm fields. A baker busily kneading Maltese bread, a carpenter carving wood using traditional tools while his wife prepares their family meal, a blacksmith working in his forge. It is an impressive and absorbing experience giving you a glimpse into life from 2,000 years ago.
Visitors can buy traditional Maltese foods at the local market and sail along the man-made river using a wooden boat operated via a pulley system! All the actors who play Bethlehem villagers (there are over 150 in total), improvise their roles and interact with the public, who will often ask them questions.
Franco Ciangura, the founder and mastermind behind the attraction recounts: “As a child I adored these fields and always knew I wanted to create something really special here. Visitors will see the live nativity scene set against a bustling Bethlehem backdrop. Inside our version of Bethlehem you’ll see the baker, who is actually a real life baker working. Even our carpenter and blacksmith perform the roles they are trained to do in real life, then, outside you’ll see local women weaving Gozo lace. We have an inn where the public can sit down and enjoy a drink, or they can buy food at our traditional market. I wanted to combine the nativity story with elements from our own history, sharing our traditions and making it a memorable experience for visitors to enjoy spending time in”.
Creating a grand scale historic village on what is essentially farmland, involves a huge community effort with many months of hard work. Local NGO’s and volunteers unite to maintain buildings, cast and rehearse the live actors, doing whatever is necessary to ensure Bethlehem will be back in business for their December 13th opening!
Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem, officially launched in 2008, and expands yearly with new attractions added and even greater public anticipation. Last year, over 120,000 visitors attended during the 5 weeks it opened, with 19,000 people visiting on Boxing Day alone. Entrance to Bethlehem is free, with donations collected helping to support the NGO’s and local community projects.
Franco says: “Some visitors become quite emotional when watching our live nativity crib, seeing Mary and Joseph care for Jesus. The atmosphere inside the stable is very special, even with so many people inside, everyone remains quiet and respectful, some people say a quiet prayer, it’s peaceful but powerful at the same time.”
Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem also features re-enactments of the ‘trip’ from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Joseph and Mary, as well as the Adoration of the Magi on the Epiphany (which occurs on the first Sunday after New Year’s day), when the three Wise Men make their journey from Malta to the nativity village.
The village is animated with performers during weekends and over the Christmas public holidays. The attraction opens on 13th December, 2019 and runs until 5th January, 2020.
For more information on dates and timings, access their website here
With special thanks to: Franco Ciangura