All together now, Viva Malta! - Mark Anthony Falzon
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All together now, Viva Malta! - Mark Anthony Falzon

In the eyes of many, the Maltese State should stop five-timing and decide once and for all on a single date as the national day. As they see it, thus and only thus can the nation truly come of age as a mature, modern, and united one.

I would like to propose December 26 as Malta’s only national day. I’m not trying to be funny. Candidates for national days tend to be scouted for in the past, but there’s no reason why this must be so. I suppose the most desirable attribute of the type is that it should represent a moment of intense nation-making, and those moments exist in the present as much as the past.

I am not interested in dissing L-Istrina. The money raised goes to a fine cause, and people seem to rather enjoy the manner of raising it. I am even less interested in morali­sing about it. It may be a form of ostentatious giving and thus possibly out of line with Christian principles, but Christianity has no monopoly over giving. There are different ways to give and different moralities of giving, of which ostentation is one.

What follows, then, is about two things. First, L-Istrina as a masterclass of choreography. Second, its value as a moment of feverish nation-making and therefore as a candidate for the honour of sole national day.

Twenty-three years after it was first launched and broadcast, the event has now settled on a standard formula. Viewers are exhorted to donate as they watch a stream of (usually corporate) donors file into the studio. The cabaret is provided by well-known people (‘personalitajiet’) doing silly things. All the while, the camera cuts back to stories of sick people, usually children with cancer.

The last bit is as effective as it is well-trodden. It is, in fact, almost 200 years old. In one of the most poignant passages in A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-To-Come takes Scrooge to the home of his underpaid employee Bob Cratchit, where the family are huddled together mourning the death of Tiny Tim.

No place for bah humbugs there: the image of the crippled child, dead because his family could not afford his medication, is intended to shake the conscience of the reader. Dickens leaves nothing to the imagination and actually wheels out a line from the Gospels: “And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them.” It’s the author at his choreographic best.

L-Istrina isthe greatest nation-making ritual of the year

Christian charity tends to keep a very low profile at L-Istrina, which has evolved into a kind of secular giving, the moral bearings of which are social and communitarian. A sociologist might be pardoned for using it as an example of secularisation. Which is where nationalism comes in, because L-Istrina makes it clear that the natural container of society and the community is the nation-state.

Take the corporate donors. They include groups like the Malta Developers Association, which this year donated a quarter of a million. By giving to L-Istrina, and by doing so in a way that enjoys high social visibility (I wouldn’t be surprised if the broadcast enjoyed the highest viewership of any show), these groups set themselves up as benefactors to society.

Rather like Dickens, they are keen to help viewers join the dots, usually by saying something about social responsibility. And, because society is to the nation what a mussel is to its shell, L-Istrina is a kind of annual ritual by which individuals and groups align themselves with the nation-state. In this sense, L-Istrina is The National Trust cooked the Maltese way.

All nations need a good story, preferably their own. L-Istrina provides a generous three. First, that a group of people have a common stake in the society they share. It is the notion that brings together the otherwise-disparate lives of a sick child, a benefactor who builds and sells flats for a living, and a viewer who works as a car mechanic. This sense of common belonging is possibly the most extraordinary thing about nationalism.

It follows that people can become part of the nation, if they can show that they belong. I was not surprised to see employees of foreign igaming companies, and representatives of various migrant groups, walk in with their fat cheques. I’m not being cynical, I’m just saying.

Second, the theology of nations invariably includes some story of progress. A nation is expected to make progress and prosper; the times when it doesn’t are glossed over as momentary setbacks in a much grander scheme of things.

It is telling that L-Istrina sets a new record every year. We are now in a situation where we cannot accept otherwise. Given no major recessions or such momentary setbacks, record takings have become as predictable as Peppi Azzopardi’s problem with names.

The yearly record, and the confetti and celebrations it is greeted with, have become part of the story of the nation’s unstoppable progress. While some might read this the partisan way (L-Aqwa Żmien and all that), we really don’t need to go there. Wise government or not, nations are expected eventually to prosper and make progress. It’s what they do for a living.

Third, any nation worth its colours must be able to attribute to itself certain characteristics, preferably unique. I’ll let Her Excellency do the honours (my translation): “You have done me proud as your President and as a Maltese. Hand on heart, we are a unique people, distinguished the world over on account of our generosity and solidarity.”

Which brings me to the President. The Office has been criticised for having morphed into a sort of fundraiser-in-chief, but I disagree. If my argument that L-Istrina is the greatest nation-making ritual of the year is right, it follows that it should be up to the President to preside.

Sole national day, then? Find me another occasion on which so many people declare their allegiance and tell themselves that they’re uniquely great, and which ends with the President singing Freddie Portelli’s Viva Malta to a sea of politicians, personalitajiet and confetti, and I will be convinced otherwise.

mafalzon@hotmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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