One specific Christmas tradition leaves us a little
confused, intrigued, and tickled all at once.
Apparently, there exists in Catalan mythology a character named Tio
Nadal. Tio for short is a log with a
face on it often propped up by sticks like the picture below, which we
photographed in a tapas bar.
Starting on December 8th with the Feast of the
Immaculate Conception, kids feed the tio a little bit every night. Some even cover him with a blanket so he
doesn’t get cold. Then, in the days preceding
Christmas, kids must take better and better care of the log to make sure that
it will poop, yes defecate, many presents on Christmas. Even stranger, to make it poop when the day
comes, kids often beat the tio with sticks singing all sorts of hilarious songs. It’s their version of Santa.
After Mdina, a tiny town of 300 people that completely empties every night around 5pm, Valletta feels like a true metropolis (kinda). There are restaurants and bars, shops that stay open late, theaters, and seemingly hordes of people.
Stomachs still full a couple days later from our Christmas dinner, early breakfast, regular breakfast and lunch, we find a small wine bar named Trabuxu serving snacks for tonight’s dinner. The wine is great, the local cheese peppery, and the service accommodating enough for Lindsey to find things to eat that are neither alcoholic nor unpasteurized. We sit outside on a little stoop people watching as we enjoy our light-ish meal.
Our first full day in Valletta is definitely full. We start with a hotel breakfast followed by a wonderfully orienting tour of the old city. The guide helps us continue to piece together many parts of Malta’s history through the different kingdoms that once ruled. But two of the highlights extended beyond just listening to the stories but actually touching and witnessing them.
What better way to touch history than turn the pages of a 400 year book! Lindsey and I both look at each other a couple times before building up the courage to turn one of these ancient pages. One of the books we flip through contains the history of Malta, another was handwritten and has interspersed little drawings. The Valetta Library holds works dating as far back as 1100, but don’t worry, that one was well protected and far out of our hands.
We next get to witness a bit of history as we enter a 5th-generation gilder’s studio. The pride he takes in his work has likely only grown through the generations. He is in the process of making a Maltese clock for his daughter’s recent wedding gift and he explains the process of how the gold is gilded onto the frame. Each smaller-than-one-millimeter thick square of gold is several Euros, and the clock he’s in the middle of building could reach up to 10,000 Euros. He uses all traditional methods including natural glues made from animals. The only new technology that he’s incorporated into his practice is that of air conditioning – this allows him to work year around even during the humid months.
We round out our day of touring by going to an ornate theater in the middle of town where they’re currently performing a very silly rendition of the Little Mermaid. These satirical plays, full of their British humor, are an end-of-year tradition. Otherwise, the theater typically is home to a bit more serious material. That said, it’s wonderful to see all of the locals performing and their families in the audience cheering them on. When surrounded by so many tourists around town, it was wonderful to see this strong local community as well.
Although Valletta does not charm us as much as Mdina did, it did give us an even greater appreciation for the history of the island. Every site we visit from Fort St. Angelo to St. John’s Cathedral which houses the largest Caravaggio to the Barrakka Gardens all reinforce that so much has happened on such a small piece of land.
Leading up to and throughout our visit, I’ve been enjoying The Sword and the Scimitar, a book by David Ball that captures through a tale of historical fiction the period when the Order of the Knights of St. John ruled on the island. Many of the names that appear in the book are also said aloud by our tour guide and in many of the museums we walk through. Although at times a little violent, the book was a very entertaining way to learn a piece of history of this special island. And what better way to enjoy some of this book than with a cup of joe from our favorite coffee shop Lot Sixty One Coffee Roasters, which I think we averaged two visits per day.
One of the many reasons that Malta became a destination for us this winter is how they celebrate the holidays. Many Christmas traditions in Malta happen outside the home. Not only does everyone attend a Midnight Christmas Mass, but many then follow it up with an early breakfast at a local restaurant. Christmas lunch is then also frequently enjoyed out. We pass by many a restaurant full of tables reorganized to accommodate large families cheerfully clinking glasses.
Not to be outdone by the Maltese, after a Christmas Eve feast at our Xara Palace Hotel, we pop into three Masses on Christmas Eve, most of which are not in English so we soak up the atmosphere more than the sermons. The last Mass we enter right at the end to admire another beautifully decorated church, and we time it just perfectly to be handed a honey ring (a traditional Maltese pastry). A couple of the locals spot us and give us the thumbs up.
After Mass, we haven’t quite worked up another appetite, but it’s time for Early Christmas breakfast. This is actually a thing in Malta. We enjoy orange juice, tea, mulled wine, and a full buffet breakfast around 2am in the morning surrounded by families young and old. And finally, because we’re still not fully stuffed, Christmas lunch the following day has a very similar appeal. Lots of families feasting out!
Along with the specific Christmas Eve and Christmas Day traditions, Malta and Gozo are fully decorated for the occasion. The streets are lit up, Christmas trees a plenty, and cribs with manger scenes. On the nearby island of Gozo, we even swing through a real-life Bethlehem complete with animals, bakers, a well, boat rides, and a manger scene with a baby Jesus. Malta knows how to do Christmas.
Botswana is a primarily Catholic country, so Christmas is just as important to the staff as it is the guests. The meals are made for celebration and eaten at a special table that accommodates both camps. We’re treated to a wonderful performance of song and dance by the giddy staff, a mashup of styles between the tribes. It’s our guide’s birthday, so we spend the afternoon crafting makeshift wrapping paper for a gift we bought from the gift shop. (Temple tipped us off on a hat he’d had his eyes on. It was so fun seeing him open it.) Our night game drive reveals few animals, but an incredible lightning storm filling the sky from all sides in an open plain: Christmas fireworks.