The Maltese tradition of preparing a crib for the Christmas festivities passed through generations of local people and is still kept alive at present. The first known and dated crib is the one kept at the Monastery of St Peter in Mdina and Joseph Muscat traced its year of construction to 1826.
It is known that the traditional Maltese crib attained popularity and spread as in many other countries by the beginning of the 19th century. The Maltese crib was influenced by the Sicilian counterpart when clay, cheap figures or pasturi were mass produced, showed definite Maltese characteristics which were to single out the traditional Maltese crib from others.
Many cribs thus inundated Malta together with the small, clay, cheap pasturi utilizing plaster moulds. The mass produced cheap pasturi were bought my many families even those who were not well off and thus the crib spread also as a means of instruction and to increase the faith in the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
What distinguished a Maltese crib from others? One must keep in mind that we are referring to a Maltese traditional crib as they were modelled from papier-mâché caves.The most popular material employed before and after WWII was the type of paper recycled from cement bags, brown paper, newspaper or any other type of discarded paper.
Before anything else a wire frame work was fitted on a wooden platform. Any type of paper was socked in water and after draining all excess water, carpenter’s glue was applied and the paper was spread on the wire. Normally a well sized cave represented the grotto for the nativity set but other small caves were added together with slopes or stairs leading up to the upper part of the crib. Few buildings and the ‘city’ normally enhanced the higher part of the crib. Other characteristics of the Maltese crib included the star, the Maltese type of windmill having six antennas for the sails, a water stone container or trough for animals, a bridge, the bakery and the well. There used to be also the angel announcing the good news to the shepherds, the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit, the Eternal God the Father and various sizes of paper angels. It is interesting to note that the small wax Baby Jesus known also as the penny Bambin, was sometimes changed into an angel by adding two tiny cardboard wings on it back.
When dry and hardened the crib was normally placed on a table or chest of drawers with the corn or gulbiena seeds slightly grown on sawdust or cotton and put in saucepans. A candle was lighted also to provide a flickering light and the clay pasturi were put in place but not glued to the crib. After the Christmas festivities all pasturi were carefully put away in a shoe’s cardboard box and stored away in a wardrobe on its top to be used again in future Christmases.
The figures or pasturi were made from Maltese clay, were referred as the penny pasturi as they normally were sold for a penny and all displayed a 19th century type of costume. The male pasturi wore long trousers, a sash round the waist, a waistcoat and the typical Maltese headdress or milsa; the female pasturi always wore long dresses. Those Maltese pasturi showed various types of craftsmen and some carried a well defined characteristic for example, the kneeling man, the man lying on his tummy trying to look down at Baby Jesus from the top of the grotto, there was the surprised one looking at the mystery of the birth of Christ, the two singers with their hands round each others’ shoulders, the xrik or partners in business, the bagpipes and the drums players, the baker, the fisherman, the hunter, the sleeping shepherd, one carrying flour or water or bread, the farmer in his field and others.
During the 19th century such clay, cheap pasturi were produced by the dozen. One should not expect to see any artistic touches in such popular art and the pasturi were normally painted with primary powder colours diluted with carpenter’s glue. Similar pasturi were still in production maybe up to the beginning of 1960 but local craftsmen discontinued to produce their pasturi for various reasons. One was the importation of beautifully produced Italian types and characters. One should keep in mind, though, that Giusti from Bormla produced early in the 20th century lovely small clay pasturi showing oriental costumes.
In various towns and villages of Malta there used to be certain shops for the sale of local pasturi; such shops could be termed as seasonal as they sold their pasturi only from October to December when they were equipped with various items for sale. There were not any special shops which dealt only with pasturi; in recent years there appeared in Malta few shops that deal with Christmas merchandise, only.
The local crib was popularized after WWII but we can say that by now it lost almost completely its Maltese character. Among various reasons for such a change there is the availability of various types of materials which could be utilized, yet certain local crib makers still opt to produce ones that remind you of Bethlehem.
The Friends of the Crib Society – Malta was set up in 1986 when the first committee members worked so hard to popularize successfully the crib in Malta and abroad, also. Subsequent committee members during these last 27 years continued to progress in activities, ideas and connections. The Society succeeded to organize for its members and the public specialized lectures as regards the construction of cribs made from various material to organize the great annual crib exhibition at St Francis Hall in Valletta, deliver talks about the crib, sits on various judging panels to schools, local societies, local councils, parishes and other entities. The Friends of the Crib – Malta is still very active and effective offering healthy contributions in favour of the local crib.
This crib tradition in my family developed into a family concern. At the age of three I remember helping papa in constructing a crib; at present both he and myself became great lovers of the crib. We both joined the Friends of the Crib – Malta Society where we met and exchanged ideas with other great crib amateurs.
Over the years various ideas developed into progressive maturity and the dream which once we had materialized when we together with other members of the Society of Malta started to put up an annual exhibition by various exhibitors in our garage at Balzan. In 2005 we set up our first crib exhibition and we continued each year to present different cribs each year.
The crib brings to mind the angelic message announcing the birth of Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace a clear message inherent with the crib, Peace and message of solidarity amongst men of good will.