The curse of fear and terror under which the Gozitans lived for so long, coupled with the insecurity of a livelihood fully dependent on the elements and limitations of a small island, has made them sticklers for devotion to their favourite saints. Saints were the last hope in the darkness, and religious images served as protective devices against the cruel vagaries of a harsh existence.
Religious culture in Gozo remains strong, with God taking second place to His saints. Devotional fervour erupts in great feasts, which take place in the summer months. These village festas are unparalleled on the continent so the English words feast, festival or holy day, do not convey a true meaning of these celebrations.
Every weekend from the last Sunday in May up to mid-September, each town and village organises a festa in honour of the patron saint to whom the parish is dedicated. In these festas, the spiritual and the secular intermingle, religion and folklore abound.
These celebrations have long been an important event and the rivalry between the villages reaches sky-high proportions.
A festa worthy of the name is made up of illuminations, brass bands, fireworks and a procession. The façade of the village church as well as the principal streets are decorated with thousands of twinkling lights. From the Wednesday preceding the festa to its eve, several brass bands march through different streets preceded and followed by the young and not so young who revel in dancing and merrymaking. The beginning and end of these marches are marked by a profusion of multi-coloured ground and aerial fireworks. On Sunday afternoon, in the town and larger villages, there is also a traditional horse and donkey race along the main street. The climax of the festa is reached on Sunday evening when a procession with the statue of the saint carried shoulder-high wends its way slowly through the village streets. The villagers, men and women and children don their best outfit and the houses are appropriately decorated and lit for the occasion.
Festas are colourful celebrations with participants vying for the most splendid show, the best fireworks, and the most spectacular sense of briju (festivity). During the summer holiday months, August in particular, thousands of people from Malta invade Gozo, spilling through the streets, filling the restaurants and bars, and spending the afternoon sleeping off their excesses on the beaches. This is the only time of year when Gozo shakes off its sleepy persona.
The pilgrimsc Mecca of Tac Pinu draws thousands of devotees who seek special favour from the divine elements. People go there to ask for, or rather demand, fortune in their endeavours, which may be anything from a business enterprise, to a marriage, a pregnancy and examinations or as a last resort in seeking a cure from serious illness. If things turn out to their satisfaction, they return with a thank-you gift for the Madonna of Tac Pinu, in the shape of a votive offering. The gift is never given before the favour is received, but only promised. Glass cases in the church display these offerings; silver hearts, christening robes, artificial limbs, splints, and more. Weddings in Gozo end with the bridal bouquet being placed on the altar of Tac Pinu, for a happy marriage. Devotion to Tac Pinu is still alive among the thousands of Gozitan emigrants as can be witnessed from the letters sent by Gozitans living in far off countries.
And what of the tall statue of Jesus christ, standing on a peak between the capital town and the seaside resort of Marsalforn, like a mini version of Rio de Janeirocs most famous landmark? The islanders feared that the peak was a dormant volcano, because of its strange shape and planted the holy statue on it, so that it would not dare erupt. It hasnct poured out a drop of lava since, but that is because it is no more than an ordinary hill.
The people of Gozo set much store by their many chapels and churches, in which, during the hearing of the mass, they sit segregated according to gender: the men on one side, the women on the other. In sheer quantity, these houses of worship could serve a population many times greater. All churches have elaborate gilded interiors, marble works and sacred paintings by prominent artists. Gold and other precious ornaments donated by the parishioners adorn the statue of the patron saint.
Given the historical absence of strong secular leadership in this isolated and insular community, the islanders turned instead to the only figures of authority they recognised: the parish priests. These men, as did their counterparts, until fairly recently, in traditional Maltese villages, were the arbiters of right and wrong, sorters-out of disputes between friends and neighbours.
Faith in God and the saints helped the people of Gozo through many a crisis, like the plague of 1814, where only 104 died. A church was built as thanksgiving for salvation from this malaise, while a century later a chapel went up in gratitude for the passing of a major cholera epidemic, which affected 2.5% of the Gozitan population.
Religion creeps into myth and legend, too, as with the tale of the Lady in White, who floated the stones for a new chapel through the air, depositing them on the very spot where she wanted her shrine to be built. This, it was concluded, was the Madonna, making it quite clear where she wanted her shrine to be built. Then there is also Kerrew, the mystical hermit who, persecuted by the wanton people of a Maltese village, who sent a loose woman to tempt him, sailed over to Gozo on his cloak. There he lived, until he died, in Pomegranate cove, and people now pray to him for miracle cures.