In the past the Maltese used to build the Christmas cribs with rustic stones creating a natural local environment style crib which are very abundant in the Maltese countryside. Also with the use of soil for passages and fields and not least carton houses. Throughout the years the Maltese used these type of stones to decorate their houses and gardens.
One of the traditions in Malta was the use of gargazza for crib building, known as slag, which was derived from burnt coal residue. It was very abundant during the time when a lot of coal used to be used in bread bakeries, until more modern fuels used in furnaces, it was less abundant and so the supply became very scarce. Apart from this the use of stone was rather cumbersome.
When I was very young I remember going with my older brother to the furnace in our street where I used to live to bring the gargazza to our house and build the crib on one of the tables we had at our house.
The family who had this furnace, which was used for the production of bread, used to be very willing to give us their material and always encouraged us to build nice cribs.
In recent years the trends have changed to paper-mâché. This material gives the Christmas crib the opportunity to keep it from one year to another and makes the crib more solid and lighter. Now-a-days other materials are used like jablo, wood and carton of various thicknesses to form bridges, houses and supports.
The most common glue was glue beads which used to be put in an old pot, heated and then spread on the required areas with a stick and with the hands form the required shapes of the crib one piece at a time. One had to be careful not to burn his hand while doing this work. Then the completed work had to dry up.
The colouring of the finished dry structure used to be painted with water colours. The most common ones were shades of brown mixed with yellow to indicate soil, stone buildings, rubble walls, timber doors and windows. Green for trees, and types of vegetation. Before the application a base of glue is applied and then the colours. In this way it will not drop out but remain fixed. Little by little the crib is painted keeping a consistence to get it matching all through.
The Christmas crib is then decorated with clay statues called pasturi in Maltese. A good designer of a crib will be capable to calculating the scale of the buildings to the size of the pasturi. The main figure of the crib is the Holy Family, namely Mary, Joseph and Jesus Christ and the nativity angel which will be in a way hanging around the grotto where Baby Jesus is lying in the manger.
Then the three Magi where in Malta there is the tradition to include these three figures on the 6th of January according to the bible story and church traditions. The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on the 6th January.
Depending on the
size of the crib, many other figures are included, having included the proper
scenery and setting to include shepherds with their flocks of sheep. Other persons who form part within a village area are the baker, the woman who
carries the water from the well, the musicians, farmers ploughing the fields.
The cribs are embellished with all sorts of interesting decorations including the unmistakable growth of vetch known as gulbiena in Maltese. It is grown in flat pans some five weeks before Christmas and kept in the dark until it is fully grown. Many embellish the crib surround or the manger of Baby Jesus with all sorts of decoration like small bulbs and plants which reflect the Maltese culture and traditions styles.
The Christmas crib on our islands form part of the Christmas in Malta cultural heritage.