Maltese creativity for the nativity

By 
  • December 22, 2010
Anthony CamilleriTORONTO - There’s no mention of a donkey loaded with pomegranates, windmills or a group of musicians playing the zaqq, the tanbur and the safzava in Gospel stories of the birth of Jesus. But for the Maltese it just wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

Traditional Maltese Christmas nativity scenes, called presepju, contain all these Maltese elements and more. At Toronto’s Maltese parish, St. Paul the Apostle, the Maltese tradition is on display in a big way.


A Christmas nativity scene has taken over three-quarters of the crying room at the back of the church. Made mainly of paper mache, the model of biblical Bethlehem contains more than 30 hand-made clay figurines, or pasturi, of everyone from the three wise men to Zechariah to shepherds to the angels.

More than two metres deep and over a metre wide, the massive creche scene is the work of a 62-year-old retired Gray Coach clerk and supervisor.

Anthony Camilleri never went to art school and has had to discover sculpting techniques by trial and error. But starting in mid-summer and working gradually towards the Christmas season in his garage, Camilleri has managed to put together a rich and detailed three-dimensional representation of the Christmas story.

“I’m proud to keep this Maltese tradition,” said Camilleri. “And for the young generation to get in this Christmas spirit.”

Camilleri knows the Maltese nativity scenes don’t quite measure up to current biblical scholarship. The musicians playing the friction drum (safzava), hand drum (tanbur) and the bagpipes (zaqq) are just a small part of how the Maltese have been adapting the story to their Mediterranean island since about the 17th century. The farmhouses in Camilleri’s nativity scene look like traditional Maltese farmhouses, while some of the other architecture is either Roman or Middle Eastern. The windmill is another touch taken from the Maltese countryside.

“It’s the old Maltese style,” said Camilleri.

In Malta people compete to produce the biggest and best presepju. That’s a tradition St. Paul’s parish continues among the children of the parish, who gather to make their own creche scenes around Christmas time.

Camilleri has been able to put his interest in sculpture at the service of his parish in other ways. He has repaired, painted and gilded some of the parishes statues, including a statue of St. George brought from Malta.

This is the second year for Camilleri’s big nativity scene at St. Paul’s. He promises every year it will be a little different — and likely a little bit bigger.

The nativity can be seen at the church, 3224 Dundas St. W., during the 5:30 p.m. Mass Saturdays or Sundays, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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