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The “Santa Marija” Assumption and Ohio convoy’s arrival
(Fireworks and flak)
The sizzling sun of mid-summer August is bringing the frolic and frenzy of the Maltese islands to a boiling point with the two feasts (public holidays) that punctuate the local calendar.
The annual recurrence of the two outstanding commemorations are none other than the feast of “Santa Marija” Assumption into Heaven and the “coincidental” arrival on 15 August 1942 of the s.s. Ohio of the Allied convoy into the Grand Harbour thus averting an instant and inevitable starvation and surrender of Malta.
The celebration of the first commemoration of the Virgin Mary’s reception bodily into Heaven is to be found on 15 August in seven local parochial localities, namely, Attard, Birkirkara, Ghaxaq, Gudja, Mosta, Mqabba and Victoria (Gozo).
One asks what was Malta’s impact derived from these feasts of lights and revelry. Malta, I dare say, had a countryside which was fertile and the lifestyle was mainly, villagey. Church clocks chimed the hours but it was the sun that punctuated the rhythm of toil and repose. Dawn and farm animals woke up the farmers who were adamant about their “off to bed” routine. The four seasons provided the produce and the villagers never regretted their earned rest.
The Maltese islands went dark after sundown and feeble lights shone across the countryside from candles and liquid fuel wicks while church domes indicated their separate and distinct location. Trodden paths and byways usually made it hard on the villagers’ feet and distances were not as close as they are now. Hamlets, villages and towns were distinguished by their church domes and belfries and the lights reduced themselves to the votive lamps traditionally placed at the feet of the patron saints’ statues in the various street corners. Villagers pined for the festivities to arrive because these did bring light and illumination to their rural area .
The commemoration of the feast day in Victoria, Gozo, is reputedly regarded as the most outstanding primarily because of the breathtaking scenario of the “Citadel”, the walled castle on top of the highest of the seven Gozitan plateaus, the first “capital” of the Sister Island. Apart from its dominant aspect, it fits admirably with the ardent and religious fervour and zeal of the people.
Merry-making, band music and religious hymns are given vent against a backdrop of a lavish fireworks display that leaves one and all open-mouthed. In the midst of this melee , the Cathedral and its clergy solemnly maintains its historic pageantry and pomp it displays in the form of a procession of the patron saint of the day, Somma Maria Assunta, that makes its way carried shoulder-high by a selected village team belonging to the parish and clad in confraternity robes. These strong carriers kept a regulated pace behind the band-marching musicians through Victoria’s festooned winding streets lined with devotees. The carriers also maintain a generation privilege which is largely passed from father to son. And all the while, the church-bells tolled.
Feasts such as this are traditionally common and with them come the intense illumination which the townspeople look forward to from year to year. The streets winding out of the main square are so thickly festooned in crimson drapes that they look like ancient galleons in full winds. Gilded decorations are to be seen everywhere and the thousand and one electric bulbs seem like cobwebs in the early morning dew.
Outstanding in the “Assunta’” five-day programme is the traditional horse racing and this is in the form of horse, mare and trotting. It unfolds itself along the very main street in Victoria aptly called earlier “Strada Corsa” (Race Street). It was a hard task for both man and beast for the steep uphill run in a straight line from the Rundle Gardens low in the plain to the main square at the foot of the Citadel.
In the 1950s, I recall, a well-known bearded Maltese businessman, George Vigo presented himself year after year to participate in the race. Each time his mare carried the day much to the dismay of the local frowning participants and onlookers. An arcaded terrace at the finishing line was once the Judges’ post and still survives to date.
A similar horse racing, the Malta Trot Racing for the “Imnarja Feast of Light) is held in Malta in the month of June. It is notably less of a religious event than a rural commemoration of a musical and traditional merry-making. “Eating Rabbit”,a national dish, is a prominent feature.
Stiffly dressed and well-combed children wander in search of the sweets counters and stalls. There was abundance in that section with Peas Pasties (Qassata tal-pizelli) Date Slices (Imqaret), Ricotta Tubes (Kannoli tar-Ricotta), Stuffed Prunes, (Pruna Mimlija), Stuffed Dates (Tamal Mimli), Treacle Rings (Qaghaq tal-Ghasel), Bread and Butter Pudding (Pudina tal Hobz u Butir) Apple Pudding (Pudina tat-Tuffieh), Cheese Cakes (Pastizzi) and a variety of Orangeade, Lemonade, Orzata (Almond drink).
With the fantastic spectacle of the fireworks from the overhead bastions of the Citadel, the 5-day commemoration and feast move to the closing phase with the firing of numberless petards called “Kaxxa Infernale” (Hellish Box) following the last steps of the statue of the Virgin Mary as it returns back to its place in the Cathedral, a fitting closure until the next year.
From fireworks to flak
Now let’s go back to the 15 August 1942 commemoration dedicated to the historic event of the tanker s.s. Ohio entering the Grand Harbour, crippled as it was with the intensive damage it had received and knocked out of action less than 100 miles away from its final destination, Malta.
Fully aware of the strategic importance and role played by Malta and the depleted resources that were heading the islands to an inevitable starvation and consequently to a rapid declaration of surrender to the Axis forces, the joint Allied forces had no option but to take drastic measures. They mounted a huge convoy of 14 merchant ships which they carefully selected for the arduous and risky undertaking. They named the convoy “Operation Pedestal” aimed at breaching the Nazi onslaught. Among the ships was the American-built but British-manned tanker s.s. Ohio which was cleverly picked for its speed and carrying capacity. It was able to carry 11,500 tons of kerosene and oil and managed to deliver its load of petrol for planes, kerosene for cooking and lighting, diesel oil to pump up well-water and fuel oil for ships and made it to the Grand Harbour in one way or another brilliantly despite heavy losses to ships and men. However, it has gone down in military history as one of the most important British strategic victories of the World War II. The intense damage it had sustained rendered it a sinking-ship and literally put out of action about 70 miles away from Malta. It was then cradled between two British warships and towed into the Grand Harbour on 15 August 1942!
The OHIO’s dramatic entry matched the commemoration date of the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. A coincidence? A miracle? A brilliant duet for the Maltese people. Surely they must have thought and believed it were so, an answer to their wartime prayers for salvation. It takes faith to accept that. A Viennese-born Jewish writer Franz Werfel has written in his book dedicated to Bernadette Soubirou of the latter’s sightings of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, as follows:
“For those who believe, explanation is not necessary. For those who do not believe, explanation is impossible”.
Take it from here.
Author: Adrian Mercieca About the Author:Adrian Mercieca is a full-time teacher at the European School of English and was a former Law student at the University of Malta, then turned Journalist in Malta, winning a 3-year scholarship in Journalism in the US, and later in Italy broadcast at RAI and the Vatican Radio. He came first in a Maltese Public Service Examination (Diplomacy) in Malta and obtained a year’s scholarship in British Diplomatic Studies at Oxford University. Served as career-diplomat until appointed ambassador.
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