Traditional celebration still drawing the crowds
Hundreds of people, including tourists, swarmed to Cospicua yesterday to enjoy Easter Sunday and the traditional procession with the statue of the Risen Christ.
The bright sunshine and the joyful marches by the St George Band added to the merriment.
One of the exciting features in this celebration, which winds its way along the strait streets of Cospicua for about four hours, is that the young and agile bearers rush with the statue every so many metres.
Steeped in tradition, the procession dates back to the mid-18th century when Captain Celestinu Sacco, rector of the archconfraternity of the Crucifix and a ship owner, bought and brought over to Malta from Spain the statue of the Risen Christ that is still venerated to this day. The statue's maker is unknown.
The archconfraternity of the Crucifix at Cospicua was made up of members of the higher echelons of society, among them lawyers, medical doctors and businessmen.
Cospicua, together with Senglea and Vittoriosa, were among the first towns to hold such celebrations.
John Galea, a member of the lay society that organises religious processions at the parish of the Immaculate Conception, explained that the statue of the Risen Lord was brought to Cospicua in 1741. At the time, the place was an extremely busy commercial centre where a lot of artisans plied their trade.
"Up till the second world war, it was customary for the statue of the Risen Christ to be taken around the streets of the city at four in the morning.
"The statue's pedestal retains the 12 lanterns that showed the bearers the way at that unearthly hour. In towns and villages that had an archconfraternity of the Crucifix, which used to commemorate the passion and death of Christ, it seemed like a natural progression for the archconfraternity to take on the devotion to the Risen Christ".
An entry in one of the documents preserved at the Cospicua parish church, dated 1702, records that the Good Friday statues had been restored, showing just how far back this cult dates.
The silver palm frond held in the Risen Christ's right hand replaced the original wooden one. In 1926, the owners of the water taxis - the dghajjes tal-pass - commissioned reknowned draughtsman Abraham Gatt to design the tombstone to Christ's grave for it (the stone) to be done in silver with funds collected among themselves.
The boat owners who also paid for the 12 silver lanterns on the statue's pedestal used to be among the foremost statue bearers at that time, Mr Galea said.
The rush forward with the statue of the Risen Christ dates back about 150 years although research is still at an early stage to find exactly what gave rise to it.
"This custom probably arose when a British governor on the island issued an edict stating that Easter day commemorations had to be over by 10 a.m.
"Probably, this spectacular dash originated in Vittoriosa when the statue bearers realised they were not going to make it on time and decided to rush through the last lap," Mr Galea said.
The impromptu act was taken up by all the other localities where the Easter day feast was held and the rush came to symbolise the Lord's triumph over death.
The procession goes through Strada Oratorio, Strada Santa Margerita - locals still refer to street names in their Italian version - up to the convent of the cloistered nuns of Santa Margerita, where archpriest Canon Joseph Mifsud yesterday blessed children and their figolli, the traditional pastry figures now vying for their market share with imported Easter eggs.
The most popular dash is that at Xghira, close to the local council offices in Cospicua, up to the entrance to Vittoriosa. The faithful eventually move on to St Helen's Gate, in Cospicua and then back to the parish church having concluded about 12 runs in all.
Of course, the not so-fit and the smokers among the 24 bearers often take it in turns as they rest a while along the route to regain their breath!