The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is a public holiday in Malta and one of the oldest celebrations in the country, dating from even before the famed Knights of Saint John first arrived on Malta in the early 16th Century. In fact, the holiday has been celebrated by Roman Catholics since at least the 3rd Century A.D.
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As Peter and Paul are generally regarded as the two main Apostles responsible for the spread of Christianity in the early years of the First Century, their being honoured on the same day is, in effect, a short-hand way of remembering the whole of the Christian faith.
The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is held annually on June 29th, though some festivities begin late on the evening of the 28th. Tradition says that both Peter and Paul were executed and buried in Rome, Peter in A.D. 64 and Paul in A.D. 67. Peter was crucified upside down, while Paul was beheaded since crucifixion could not be administered to Roman citizens.
Paul is also the patron saint of Malta due to his being shipwrecked on its shores and evangelising the island while there. Peter never stepped foot on Malta, as far as we know, but being the patron saint of all fishermen, he is also highly regarded in Malta, where the fishing industry is extremely important.
The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is observed throughout the islands of Malta and Gozo and is known in the local language as “L-Imnarja,” which derives from the Italian word “Luminara,” meaning “festival of light.” This designation is due to the common practice of lighting bonfires on this day in olden times.
Originally, the feast was a kind of harvest and folk festival, besides being a religious observance. Nowadays, celebratory events have drifted from these original roots, except in Nadur on the island of Gozo, where many of the old traditions continue. For special religious services to honour the day, visit the Mdina Cathedral, where the liturgy, architecture, and message create a unique experience.
The main events of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, however, are as follows:
- In Rabat, musical performances, dancing, festive dishes that predominantly include rabbit, and horseback riding continue unabated all day long. This is on the actual day of the feast, the 29th of June, and during the daylight hours.
- Later in the afternoon on June 29th, not too far from Mdina, you can watch donkeys and horses race down a country road. The winners of the races receive a “palju,” which is a kind of victory banner that functions the same as a trophy. The commander of the Knights of Saint John used to give the banner to the victors in Medieval times. There are numerous races, divided according to various categories.
- In Buskett Garden, during the evening of June 28th, there are food stalls set up selling rabbit dishes and locally made wines. Many come over on a special bus from Rabat to Buskett to attend, but it is only around a half-mile walk. Also in Buskett, there is an agricultural exhibit held during the feast.
The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is an ancient tradition still observed by many Roman Catholics around the world, but nowhere is it more fully celebrated than in Malta.