[WATCH] Godfrey Farrugia: ‘The village feast gives us what modern life has taken away’

While Malta awaits the Maltese feast to be recognised as part of UNESCO’s intangible heritage list, published author Godfrey Farrugia sits down with MATTHEW FARRUGIA to discuss how this became possible, how feasts keep growing in popularity, and what challenges they may face in the future

Godfrey Farrugia (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Godfrey Farrugia (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Despite the changes to lifestyle and reality brought about by a modern Malta, the Maltese’s thirst for the village feast stays strong. 

The unique manifestation and sense of community brought about by village feasts are juxtaposed by the isolation induced by modern societies.  

Feast enthusiast and published author on the subject, Godfrey Farrugia says this sense of belonging is one of the reasons behind the unwavering popularity of feasts throughout the years. In fact, the Maltese feast is on track to secure UNESCO recognition as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. 

But despite UNESCO recognition being within Malta’s grasp, Farrugia says this is not enough. The government, citizens, and band clubs have the responsibility of keeping the feast alive throughout the years, he tells me as we sit down together inside the St Philip’s band club in his hometown Żebbuġ. 

For feasts to be kept alive, he says, stakeholders have to ensure feasts keep evolving. It is either evolution or the risk of dying out, he puts it bluntly. 
“The feast of San Girgor for instance, has lost the popularity it was once known for,” Farrugia explains, noting that this feast had remained static throughout the years.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

Godfrey, thank you for joining us. Before we dive in, can you explain what the UNESCO recognition for the Maltese feast means? 

I think it’s good to start by explaining why the feasts should be recognised. Culture is the heart and soul of a nation, and what distinguishes one country from another are the language, the history, and the culture. 

When we look at Maltese culture over a period of time, we can find the Maltese feast as the culmination of Maltese culture. The Maltese feast is a manifestation and it belongs to the church as much as it belongs to the community. While feasts do have a religious theme, they have social and cultural dimensions. 

The feast contains spectacles, be it within the church, the decorations in the streets, band clubs and pyrotechnical shows. When you look at all of these factors, you will see that feasts have a cultural and social legacy.

You mentioned that feasts partly belong to the church, but the church nowadays is not what it used to be (in terms of popularity). The same cannot be said for feasts though. They’ve evolved and grew in popularity. What do you think this says about us as a nation? 

Like I said, the feast is a manifestation of the people, that’s why it belongs to the people and the patron saint. During the feast, the crowd is celebrating itself, as well as the patron saint. 

In today’s world, where we live at a faster pace and no one has time for anything, preparations for the feast start weeks prior to the date, and some people even start to work on feasts a year in advance. But apart from that, when it comes to the week of the feast, people fully participate, and they even have a social thirst for the feast. 

Nowadays, because of the lifestyle we have, we’ve isolated ourselves when it comes to social events. So the village feast creates an occasion where the community invites outsiders to join them during this special period, while also creating a spectacle for tourists, and we’ve recognised this.  

The Malta Tourism Authority and the Culture Ministry have recognised this and helped us greatly, and I thank them. Because of this, the cult of feasts has been promoted internationally, to the point where foreigners are almost more proud of our feasts than we are.

I guess we’ve taken feasts for granted, but it’s interesting that you talk about feasts bringing back a sense of community… 

The feast brings about pride. But it also brings about a sense of unity, despite the subcultures within feasts that are necessary. Feasts also bring about a sense of civic duty that not everybody appreciates. 

Unfortunately we sometimes look at the feast in a bad light because of certain aspects, but we forget the sense of civic duty it brings about, and the fact that it helps in personality development for youths. 

This is why we need to safeguard this tradition, especially in today’s world. You can say that Malta is cosmopolitan nowadays, we have many cultures within the country. This is beautiful, as is diversity, but this also means that this generation has a bigger responsibility to help sustain and grow our traditions. 

Otherwise, globalisation can engulf traditions like ours because we are so small. That’s when we start celebrating foreign holidays. For instance, Halloween is widely celebrated nowadays in Malta. As a result of this, our feast of Saint Martin suffered a loss in popularity because we didn’t safeguard it enough. 

This is why UNESCO recognition can help Maltese feasts to grow, because this is a heritage that we must appreciate and we are obliged to pass it on to future generations.

You mentioned globalisation and this modern life of ours. Looking forward, what do you think can threaten this part of our heritage? 

I think that the largest threat to feasts is globalisation. Another major challenge humanity faces is artificial intelligence. 

One of the difficulties we may face is that artificial intelligence may, in some way hinder our feasts.

How so? 

I cannot fully understand it, but it is one of my own personal fears. Artificial intelligence can substitute humans, but it doesn’t have our feelings. The feast targets our five senses, and despite the fact that feasts now have a digital dimension, artificial intelligence can hinder feasts in that sense.  

The sensations that come from our sense of sight, smell, hearing and touch are not present in artificial intelligence, and I worry that might hinder the feast.