Feast of St. Gaetan, Hamrun, Malta
“Their chief occupations are feasting, fighting, and making love, and playing the most beautiful music.”
I cannot claim to know what my townsmen get up to in the privacy of their homes when the beautiful music stops and their bedrooms beckon, but as for the feasting and the fighting – no one does it better than the people of Hamrun in the week of San Gejtanu.
The feast takes place on the first Sunday of August and climaxes on its last day. It celebrates the patron saint of the town, Saint Gaetan, or San Gejtanu as we call him here. As far as saintly C.V.’s go, his is hard to beat: he is the patron saint of Argentina, the unemployed and gamblers. The town of Hamrun may have its fair share of gamblers and unemployed; but Argentinians?
The reason why he’s the patron saint of our town is far more banal, more political, even. Before Hamrun had its own parish it was known as Casale San Giuseppe, and as the name indicates St. Joseph was the patron saint of this little on-the-way town barely a mile out of the capital, Valletta. When, in the 19th century, Hamrun was made into its own parish, it came time to build a new parish church to fit its status.
Naturally, the townspeople of Casale San Giuseppe expected a church to be dedicated to their beloved saint, patron of workers and labour, St. Joseph. But enter Gaetano Pace Forno (judging by the name, you can see where this is going) the bishop of Malta at the time. He must have looked around a map of Malta of the time, 1870’s, and seen that there was not a single parish named after his namesake, Saint Gaetan. Then, conveniently, he thought; look, a new church is going up, a big, prestigious one, yes, let’s dedicate that to me, I mean St. Gaetan, but Your Excellency the patron saint of the town is St. Joseph, the people – the people will get over it! So up went the church of St. Gaetan in the town of St. Joseph.
And no, the people didn’t get over it.
This historical little historical tid-bit goes a long way in explaining the ‘fighting’ part in our feast. Though, in fairness, there hasn’t been a major scuffle since 1987, the tension lingers on, and minor brawls are inevitable – making our Catholic feast one of the most unique on the whole island.
When bishop Gaetano Pace Forno indulged himself (ah the church and its Indulgences!) and named the nascent church after himself he created an un-bridgeable rift within the town that would long outlive him. The first band-club that was formed in Hamrun (to make it clear, a band-club, or kazin, is the organisational body in charge of feast organisation, hosted always in a bar that doubles up as a meeting place – these originally evolved from political clubs on the island and date back to the late 19th century) was dedicated to St. Joseph. The band club was founded in 1889 and proudly ordains itself the oldest band club in Hamrun – dedicated to the original, true saint of the town. Their nickname in Maltese is ‘tal-Miskina’ which roughly translated means the poor ones, vaguely because early on some band members were kicked out of the club because of frivolity. They are associated with the colour blue.
As for the other half of the feast, those associated with the red colour, these are the followers of the San Gejtanu Band Club, founded in 1906 by those ‘poor’ band members of the St. Joseph band club who were kicked out. The new band club was dedicated to the ‘current’ patron saint of the town, and they are nicknamed ‘tat-Tamal’ meaning dates, because their first kazin was beside a dates vendor. They claim to be the true band club of the town as they carry the name of the town’s actual patron saint.
The rivalry between the followers of the two band-clubs is immense. And this tension helps make the feast here the liveliest, most exciting, most, well, hardcore. Every night of the week, the alternate bands go out to play in the streets, and when they climax at around midnight, their half-drunk, passionate supporters begin singing their club’s anthems, which are generally insults to the other band-club, insults which very often contain inappropriate, but majestically funny language. They do this in a flurry of music, surrounded by a swirl of flags, to music, and of course, at the end, to a cannonade of fireworks.
Of course, the reason for the tension between the two band-clubs – which often has a civil-war feel in the town, pitting brother against brother (or worse brother’s wife, etc.) – is not only down to religion and the bishop’s ill-fated decision. It has to do with politics as well, as does everything else.
About 70% of the time the followers of the San Gejtanu band-club tend to be socialist, Labour Party supporters (hence the red colour), whilst followers of the San Guzepp band-club tend to be Nationalist Party supporters (hence the blue). And whenever there are political tensions in the country, the tension in the feast is amplified, as the supporters of the two band-clubs, hopped up on a week-long binge, take out on each other the tension that had been building for a whole year. I remember quite a lot of fighting – glass bottles the favoured weapons – in 2002, the feast before Malta voted in the EU referendum, a hotly contested, acrimonious affair that spilled over nastily into the feast.
The worst year of fighting came in 1987. An election year in Malta – a bad election year. There had already been repeated acts of small and not-so-small violence throughout that year all over Malta, but when the feasts came, it all hit the fan. People describe it as the year when “angels went flying across the high street” – referring to all the statues of angels and saints that had been destroyed during what was essentially a riot. Even the main statue of Luther (St. Gaetan’s proudest scalp) came tumbling down, shattered, its head forever lost (my uncle might have nabbed it, actually), all that craft and artistry that takes a whole year to create destroyed in a few chaotic minutes. Ever since then the band-clubs have agreed to restrict the behaviour of their respective supporters and a rapprochement was reached – leading to a drastic decrease in incidents since.
But tensions remain. Especially on the Sunday climax, when both bands play at the same time, barely a kilometre apart, at eleven in the morning under the blazing August sun, their supporters would have started drinking at six in the morning and now, raised on each other’s shoulders, they would be hurling insults at each other like there was no tomorrow (and really, see the town on the next day – you’d think they were right). In the crowds, in the sweating, spray-painted throngs, let anyone step on a discarded beer bottle and everyone would tense up at the sound like drunken meerkats – parents holding their children suddenly tight, looking around them, listening in.
It sounds dangerous – it can be – it sounds wild – it definitely is – it sounds lawless – it is – it sounds amazing, right? – it is. It’s not something you are likely to experience anywhere else in the world. There are many feasts around the world; but nowhere else does passion boil over into near-violence, where good music, good times, and bad crowds come together to create the most hardcore of religious feasts. It’s something Hemingway would have revelled in; if he came here and witnessed it he would have written a novel set around San Gejtanu instead of San Fermin! There are no bulls here, but they’re not needed.
Throughout the week I will be continuing to post about the feast as it progresses, as if I were a war-reporter rather than a travel writer! Then, on Sunday, if I’m sobre enough, I will write about the climactic, endemic end to the feast!