Ever since I moved in with my boyfriend Matt, not only did I learn more about Swedish customs (which vary to an extent from what I am used to), but I have also learned to adapt better to the Christmas period by taking what I like from rituals in order to create our personal Christmas tradition in our new home.
After researching a bit on the Internet to back up my writing, I have realised that there is way too much information about Christmas from both cultures. Therefore, I feel forced to divide my material into at least three posts, hopefully posting each of them once a week up till Christmas.
This first post is about…
Preparation for Christmas through decoration
As soon as Halloween (an imported tradition that has grown big in Malta in recent years) is over, shops selling decorations soon put up all their lights and related Christmas ornaments to lure customers. This sets the mood for the decoration of homes and streets.
The Christmas tree is, without any doubt, the most recognisable symbol, and I’m sure that it can be found inside all the houses that celebrate this feast. They come in all sizes, materials and colours and can be minimal or extravagant, depending on the owner’s passion for this holiday.
More strings of brightly coloured lights are hung around rooms, corridors, windows and balconies. Other common decorations may include illuminated figures of Santa Claus and snowmen placed in balconies, illuminated stars adorning windows, old Christmas cards, and mechanical, musical figures of Santa Claus.
However, since Malta is predominantly Christian, the most beloved piece of decoration will always be the crib (presepju) showing the Nativity scene. The simplest one might bear only the figures of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph with perhaps a couple of animals. The most complex crib can cover a large table or two and can include more different scenes and pasturi (figurines representing characters such as shepherds). Such cribs are usually the work of artisans or simply the most dedicated dilettante.
Thus, beautifully decorated homes start lighting up the Maltese nights by the first two weeks of December (some people are all set by the end of November while others wait till the two public holidays on the 8th and 13th are over). Yet the streets are no less beautiful. Depending on the budget and interest of local councils, many towns and villages light up their main streets. The best scene to be witnessed though is certainly that on Republic Street in Valletta. The amazing illuminations lining the most crowded street, together with Christmas carols playing on loud speakers, create the perfect cosy mood for Christmas shopping.
From Mexico to Malta, northern lights to sunny skies, the best places to do Christmas: https://t.co/ji2TchHoHO
— CNN Travel (@CNNTravel) December 7, 2015
In the Christian world, the period preceding Christmas is known as the Advent. In Malta, this term is mostly used in relation to religious functions.
When it comes to Sweden, which is known to be secular yet with Lutheranism as the major religion, I have learned that it is common practice to light a candle every Sunday in December on an ornament called adventsljusstake. An electric one can often be found on window sills in homes. Candles, as well as artificial lights, give the Swedes a warm reprieve from the dark wintry days.
Besides that, decorations include the traditional Christmas tree and the star of Bethlehem hanging in windows. Balconies and windows though are not as heavily decorated with lights as in Malta.
One other common ornament that I have discovered for the first time is the Yule goat (julbocken), a Nordic pagan tradition. It is usually made of straw and it can be placed near the Christmas tree or used to decorate tables and shelves.
Out on the Swedish streets, it is common to find a Christmas market or fair where apart from handmade ornaments, one can find lots of other Christmas specialities such as food.
For our first Christmas together in Malta, last year, Matt and I had purchased a medium-sized fibre optic Christmas tree, which we decorated with red balls and put in the open plan, next to the big balcony door. Underneath it, we placed each other’s wrapped gifts. That and a simple string of coloured lights across the bannister of the balcony were our only decorations.
This year we improved just a little by adding more coloured lights to the window overlooking our street. It might not be a lot but it still creates quite an atmosphere. From next year, I will start thinking ahead and buy more lights to cover all our windows and balcony doors.
Since I am an atheist and Matt is not a practising believer, I don’t think we will ever put up religious ornaments in our home. Therefore, lights are what I love the most about decorations. Both at home and outside in the streets, the environment changes and so does my mood. I can’t explain why colourful lights make me feel better. I wish we could keep them up all year long!