Sunday, 29 August 2010

Our fateful feasts

Let me start with a confession. I don’t particularly like feasts and I hate with quite a bit of energy the useless noise, the just-noise no-colour fireworks produce. So you have been warned. If this article will cause you offence please admire my ugly mug next to the article, fire some swear-words at me, move on and ponder on some less annoying stuff.

The poor dead man from the Mosta fireworks factory hasn’t been buried long so I will honour his memory with as much mirthless solemnity as is possible to me. Laughing and smiling and accepting and expecting to be amused even in the most solemn of occasions has always been a fault of mine so again please be patient with me and accept my flippancy. Or move on. This flaw has shadowed me from infancy. I find fun and laughter even in the worst of occasions. I have always thought that even in funerals one should see and emphasise the first three letters of the word funeral.

But I, as is my wont, digress and jabber on. What’s with feasts and their mortal accompaniment -- the infamous murtali (petards)? That I don’t like them is not what I want to talk about. I can see why they are enjoyed: after all I did say I like fun so feasts should be my great big love. What I utterly detest are the useless noisy bangs that go on from morning till late at night with no thought or care of the sick, the infirm or those who do not like such fare. The colourful ones, I grudgingly admit, are fun. The kaxxa infernali, although quite diabolically insane in its proximity to houses, is lovely to see. But is all this fun, colour and religious mania worth all the human and material loss? In fact is the terrifying din we all heard on that fateful Friday the 13th when the Santa Marija fireworks factory blew up, worth it at all? And is it in any way connected to religion? Or is it connected to Our Lord Jesus Christ? Because I imagine the glorification of patron saints is, in some ways, intended to glorify Jesus Christ himself, otherwise it would be idolatry. So by simple deduction we should arrive at the great conclusion that Jesus Christ quite loves and admires feasts and fireworks.

My heart bleeds for all the men who have died or suffered some firework-related accident. Is there a strange correlation to a macho thing here? I’ve never heard of a female being involved in any firework-related accident. Is that pure chance or are only males interested in producing the fiery stuff? Or maybe women are more averse to taking risks? Other countries produce fireworks but we rarely hear of factories being blown off. Is it our heat? Is it our Mediterranean bravado? Maybe we in Malta produce our fireworks as a sign of respect for the panoply of saints and angels and the Holy Trinity; maybe in producing the fireworks we feel we have to be more daring in showing how devourt our religion is.

The latest in our string of national accidents in the fireworks field saw a known enthusiast and expert die. So the usual excuse that amateurs who dabble in explosive stuff were involved is not much of an excuse here. I fear that the full reason for the explosion that rocked the whole island will never be found. But even if it is found I doubt whether any action will be taken. We witnessed these accidents so often that we are becoming immune to them. We react in horror when a fireworks factory blows up but then after a few days or weeks we are back to normal. In fact although Mosta did cancel all outdoor festivities, none of the other villages thought of playing their own feast down. Maybe it would have been apt to play down their own feast as a sign of solidarity or respect?

Unfortunately I would say the solution to this is a complete ban of fireworks of all type, colourful, noisy or whatever. Sorry dear tourist and dear Maltese lover of mayhem - that would be my draconian answer to this loss of life. As many among my friends and foes would say: thank God I am no law-giver. I know a total ban would meet with loads of protests. Besides the rapt onlookers and festa visitors there would be a plethora of protests from the Malta Tourism Authority, the firework manufacturers, the church, the band players’ union and a few other groups.

It might seem strange to think that just because fireworks are banned there would be no festa. But the main fun that feasts afford is the noise that reverberates all around the village square and which illuminates the sky with all sorts of colour. I doubt if the patron saint would want to get off her cosy niche if he/she is not greeted with fireworks once he/she comes out of the church. Can anyone imagine a feast which will not have the saint fêted with some sort of colourful cacophony when he/she is being hauled in all his/her glory all around the village? The noise, the fun is needed and without it the feast as we have always known it would change drastically and it would be no more. And if it’s not a normal feast with frolicky fun the would-be revellers would not help much to make the feast a success. If the feast becomes just a deeply religious one, with just solemn services and serious rites and quiet observance of liturgy all organised in the patron saint’s memory, the attendance would fall dramatically. Would the church authorities love or tolerate such a change?

Feasts and fireworks make the village rock so even the local council loves festi. Feasts, after all, help the economic cycle. Bars and other shops love festi and the colour and noise because they sell so many more beers and all sorts of calorific colourful stuff. So besides the barmen and the brassy barmaids selling their wares and hotdogs, feasts help the beer importers, the beer manufacturers, the vintners of Malta and also ultimately the farmers who sell more grapes to the vintners who sell most of their stuff during the feasts. Feats of drinking prowess might not be organised around Malta too often but they sure seem to be held regularly every time a saint is honoured. So with every bang the Maltese economic cycle gets a really grand boost.

So my dream of a total ban will definitely never be attained. Malta needs feasts and therefore it needs fireworks to keep it going. Feasts and fireworks are ingrained in our psyche: some years ago we even had incoming and outgoing flights banned for a few hours to allow fireworks to be let off close to the airport. We also used to have an arterial road like the B’kara bypass closed off to traffic to let the village revellers get on with their noisy mirth to show off their love of some saint in heaven. Doesn’t this show our love of feasts and fireworks? Can anyone imagine closing Heathrow airport so that some English protestants can show their disdain of that horrid Catholic, Guy Fawkes?

If the ban is implemented we would have no fireworks festival in Grand Harbour. So we would lose another occasion to show off our bastions and cities.

I know that fireworks, however lethal, will never be banned. And although we keep saying we will legislate to make the manufacture of fireworks less dangerous all we ever do is talk, talk and then talk a bit more. Then finally after another period of soul-searching and gut-wrenching we end up passing some tough draconian measures that make us, on paper, the least likely to suffer any casualties in firework-related accidents. But such measures need enforcement and I’m not convinced we are the best enforcers of tough measures. So whatever happens and whatever is discussed and decided all will remain exactly the same with the same results and loss of lives or limbs.

Even if you love feasts and their din I cannot imagine anyone loving, or easily living with, the disasters that are regularly witnessed in the firework field. If faith is in any way involved in festive fireworks the horrid fate of so many enthusiasts should make us stop and think very hard. Is it all worthwhile to see so much effort and human life go up in useless but colourful smoke?

This article first appeared in the Malta Independent on Sunday on August 29 2010

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