Mnarja (or l-Imnarja) is one of the most important dates on the Maltese cultural calendar. Officially, it is a national festival dedicated to the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. In fact, it’s roots can be traced back to the pagan Roman feast of Luminaria (literally meaning, “the illumination“), when the early summer night of June 29 was illuminated by torches and bonfires. A national feast since the rule of the Order of St. John, Mnarja is a traditional Maltese festival of food, religion and music.
The festivities still commence today with the reading of the “bandu”, an official governmental announcement, which has been read on this day in Malta since the 16th century. Originally, Mnarja was celebrated outside St. Paul’s Grotto, in the north of Malta; however, by 1613 the focus of the festivities had shifted to the Cathedral of St. Paul in Mdina, and featured torchlight processions, the firing of 100 petards, horse races, and races for men, boys and slaves.
Modern Mnarja festivals take place in and around the woodlands of Buskett, just outside the town of Rabat.
It is said that under the Knights, this was the one day in the year when the Maltese were allowed to hunt and eat wild rabbit, which was otherwise reserved for the hunting pleasures of the Knights. The close connection between Mnarja and rabbit stew (Maltese: “fenkata”) remains strong today. In 1854 British governor William Reid launched an agricultural show at Buskett which is still being held today. The farmers’ exhibition is still a seminal part of the Mnarja festivities today.
Mnarja today is one of the few occasions when participants may hear traditional Maltese “għana“. Traditionally, grooms would promise to take their newly or recently wed brides to Mnarja during the first of year of marriage and, for luck, many of the brides would attend in their full wedding gown and veil, although this custom has long since disappeared from the Islands.