The year is 2023, but that is not quite true for Għajnsielem on Gozo. This village on Malta’s little sister island is hosting the Bethlehem Nativity Village for the fourteenth time. It is not just a stable in Bethlehem that is set up and filled with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. In Għajnsielem, the whole village is on its feet to bring the Bethlehem of Bethlehem to life from mid-December to the beginning of January. With bakers, carpenters, blacksmiths and fishermen, with sheep, donkeys and goats and, above all, with people. They are families from Gozo playing families from Bethlehem in the year one of our era. Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem is not Christmas kitsch, but a successful combination of Maltese folklore and the traditions of the Maltese nativity scene. Over the years, the event has attracted international attention and has become a popular Christmas destination.
In the beginning was the child
Franco Ciangura had the idea for the biblical re-enactment. He is a self-confessed Christmas fan and won countless nativity scene building competitions as a child. In 2000, the current deputy mayor of Għajnsielem had just given birth to a son himself and, as a member of the administration, he was involved in planning the town’s development. As a precursor to the crib village, he designed a hut in the middle of the village square. His young son Matteo played the leading role in the Holy Family. Together with shepherds and a few animals, the nativity scene was a success. In 2008, the crib village was built according to Franco Ciangura’s plans on an unused plot of land, where garbage kept accumulating to the annoyance of the community. The non-profit organizations of Għajnsielem decided to tackle the ambitious project. The local council provided the financial backing for Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem. Within a few weeks, the site was cleaned up and renovated, transforming it into a nativity village. Over an area of 20,000 square meters, the fields of Ta’ Passi became the village of Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago. The experiment was a success from the very first year. Initially, visitors came mainly from Malta and Gozo, but today they come from all over the world. For 2023, Għajnsielem expects the number of visitors to exceed 100,000 again, as in the years before the pandemic.
Guests can spend the night in Bethlehem
With this success behind him, project manager Franco Ciangura is not running out of ideas. Every year, more attractions are added to the village. For example, there is now the Lukanda Bethlehem Inn. The rooms are simple, but the atmosphere is as Christmassy as can be. The accommodation is also in a prime location, as the manger with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus is just a few steps away. Overnight stays in the Bethlehem village are often booked by tourists from abroad. Ciangura tells the story of a family from the USA who first spent a night in the Bethlehem village as a family of four and then brought more family members with them the following year.
A family affair
Admission to Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem is free of charge. All visitors receive a map at the entrance to help them find their way around. The first stop is the bakery, deliberately staged by project manager Franco Ciangura, as “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread”. This is followed by other craftsmen such as carpenters and blacksmiths. Each house is inhabited by entire families. This is a reminder that Christmas is a family celebration.
While visitor numbers are developing well, it is becoming more and more difficult for the organization team to find enough performers for the live nativity scene every year. The willingness of the population to get involved in the nativity play has declined since the pandemic years. Christmas days are very busy and on New Year’s Day too, the village is filled with around 100 performers from 3.00 pm to 7.00 pm. As a live performer, it’s good to have your family members around you as fellow actors.
You can see the attention to detail in the houses, with lots of wood and the light-colored sand-lime brick typical of Malta and Gozo. Stoneware and wooden cutlery, wrought-iron tools and burning oil lamps can be found in the huts. Only at the market stalls and the baker’s can you find goods in plastic packaging to comply with today’s hygiene regulations. A suspension bridge leads to a landing stage where a Maltese boat is moored. You can buy local handicrafts and see antique agricultural tools. Gozitan food and wine are on offer in the tavern. A traditional Maltese music group plays here and there along the paths. Bethlehem f’Għajnsielem is different from the often consumer-oriented Christmas attractions. You won’t find Santa Claus and glittering gift dummies here. In keeping with the Maltese nativity scene tradition, the birth of the baby Jesus takes center stage.
Come little children!
Staffing the nativity scene in the village of Bethlehem has been a special challenge for the organization team for several years. They are looking for real newborn babies with their mothers and ideally also their fathers. The baby Jesus, with Mary and Joseph at his side, takes a shift of around one and a half hours in the manger. Then there is a changeover. For an event day, Bethlehem plans f’Għajnsielem with four holy families. To ensure that the most important role in the entire village is always adequately filled, the organization team addresses all families who have had a child in the current year, regardless of gender. In the event that the biological father does not feel like being Joseph for around ten days, a substitute father is provided for mother and child.
Tradition of the Maltese nativity scene
The Society of Nativity Scene Friends has existed in Malta since 1986. The members of Ghaqda Hbieb tal-Presepju are committed to reviving the nativity scene tradition. Malta is still a strongly Christian country with a religiously oriented society. The nativity scene, il-Presepju in Maltese, should once again become the focus of Maltese Christmas celebrations. Nativity scenes in Malta reached their peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then the enthusiasm for the elaborate decorations waned and the much easier to decorate Christmas tree found its way into living rooms. The Society of Friends of the Nativity Scene successfully revived the Maltese people’s love of the nativity scene. Statuettes, known as pasturi, can be bought in stores from October. In the run-up to Christmas, many private homes decorate a window of their house with a nativity scene, workshops on nativity scene making are offered, museums display old pasturi by well-known artists and the many churches on Malta and Gozo invite visitors to take part in nativity plays.
Oh Christmas tree
So the nativity scene is back on Malta and Gozo. But the Christmas tree has remained. A particularly beautiful specimen was created in the very year when the live nativity scene on Gozo could not take place due to the Covid pandemic. In 2021, Christmas enthusiast Franco Ciangura kept his village busy with a gigantic tree project instead. He asked the residents of Għajnsielem to collect glass bottles in the middle of the lockdown and place them in front of the church on the village square. Five women set to work removing the labels. In the end, there were 5,000 bottles, which formed a beautiful Christmas tree on a solid steel frame and illuminated by countless small lights. It was so beautiful that it was voted the most beautiful Christmas tree in Europe that same year. Since then, it has been erected every year in the village square of Għajnsielem. With the Għajnsielem Christmas Tree, chief planner Franco Ciangura has given his village another Christmas attraction. He himself is grateful for his team of volunteers who provide thousands of visitors to the nativity village every year and he looks forward to seeing the many faces beaming with Christmas joy every year.
Glittering Christmas on Malta and Gozo
Almost every street and square in Malta and Gozo glitters in the run-up to Christmas. Angels, stars and often the three holy kings are brought into position in every village. Magnificent fairy lights are strung across the streets and fountains and squares are decorated with figures. Santa Claus is rarely seen. Snowmen are a little more popular. Even if the wish for a white Christmas in Malta will probably never come true. Click here for the picture gallery Lametta in Valletta.