Ix-xahar tal-mejtin is how Gozitans refer to November, which translates as the month of the dead. Throughout the month, our islanders will clean and tend to their relatives’ graves, laying flowers in their respect. Gozo’s cemeteries become a focal point for daily life and are filled with joyous colourful blooms, as relatives pay their respects to deceased loved ones.
However, once night falls these places of remembrance become even more poignant as red candles are lit , glowing silently on the graves. The intricate beauty of ornately carved headstones take on a new dimension in the flickering, spell-binding, ethereal radiance of candle light. Our cemeteries, warmed by the glow of hundreds of flickering candles light up the night sky and can be seen for miles around.
For many visitors, Halloween’celebrationswill be loosely dependent on their Catholic, Christian and pagan beliefs. In Gozo, Halloween (October 31st), All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd) are collectively known as the “Days of the Dead”, which sounds ominous, but is nothing to be spooked by. Halloween actually comes from the words All Hallow’s Eve and to catholics this means the vigil of All Saints (All Hallows) Day.
This feast honors the dead in Christ, the saints in heaven and our departed friends and family. During All Souls Day – all faithful islanders will attend mass and Roman Catholic priests will hold up to 3 Masses for the Repose of all the Souls of the dead. Historically, Catholics believed the timespan of this feast was when the veil between heaven, hell, and purgatory was the thinnest.
A customary Maltese tradition of yesteryear linked to All Souls Day involved a wealthy resident buying a pig, tying a bell around its neck and releasing it in the local community in a custom known as Il-Ħanżira tal-Erwieħ, which means the sow of souls. Villagers collectively fed the pig to fatten it up and then by November 2, the pig was captured and its meat distributed among the poor. So, many pork-based dishes served around this time of year will hark back to this historical custom. Another dish synonymous with November is torta tal-qargha ħamra, our traditional savoury pumpkin pie – a delicate shortcrust pastry case filled with stir-fried pumpkin, rice, salted tuna and black olives – and yes it does taste as good as it looks.
Like many of Gozo’s other religious feasts, the Days of the Dead also has its own sweet ‘ l-għadam tal-mejtin’, known as the Dead Man’s Bone. It is a sweet dough/biscuit in the anatomical shape of a bone, traditionally covered in white icing with a sweet almond taste. Confectioneries’ windowsills and convenience shops are filled with these bone-shaped pastries during November, made from sweet pastry dough and an almond filling.
Halloween, and the more widespread practice of dressing up in scary, ghoulish costumes while out on parade ‘trick or treating’, has only recently been infiltrated into local life on our island.
Whether it’s down to American customs permeating popular culture worldwide, or because of Gozitan migrants returning from the USA and bringing their American customs with them – no one knows. However, for the last 6 years Nadur, a village central to many of Gozo’s carnivals and pageants has organised a large scale Halloween event with live music entertainment, spooky fancy dress costumes, fire-eating, pumpkin carving and more – which, like historical events of yesteryear, provide much needed support for the needy in our community by raising cash for a nominated charity, whilst generating lots of family fun in the process.
So, as you can see Gozo’s month of the dead is anything but…..not only is it full of life, but it is also life celebrating and life-affirming!
With thanks to: Chris Galea & Fiona Vella