Christmas traditions in Malta seem to be a combination of lay and semi-religious manifestations. The crib is one of the main semi-religious activities. Some folklore writers think that the first crib was introduced in Malta in 1617/18 by Blackfriars in their Rabat church. This crib was lit up on Christmas Eve with earthenware lamps burning inside paper lanterns.
Cribs were later introduced in state hospitals. Then the locals started producing their own for their homes. Maltese crib figures started to be made out of clay. Only the figure of the Infant Jesus and sheep were made out of wax. The Maltese created two types of cribs – small ones (know locally as ‘il-grotta’) and bigger ones. One of these crib makers was Maestro Saverio Laferla. His fame was widespread all over the islands, so much so that an eighteenth-century diarist entered the following comment for the 19 January 1761: ‘the death has occurred of Maestro Saverio Laferla, a barber, acclaimed for his skills in making cribs and statues of papier-mâché.’
In the 1870s we come across a large-scale mechanised crib at Ħal Qormi. It seems that this crib created such a sensation that 7 years later there was another one at Tas-Sliema. By the turn of the twentieth century the large-scale cribs became so popular with the Maltese that we find several references to them in the local press.
Nowadays we find cribs in many Maltese homes. Schools and other public institutions such as old people’s homes and hospitals also have their own crib. The crib’s popularity increased due to the activities of two crib clubs – one in Malta and another in Gozo. Both clubs organise a crib exhibition a few days before Christmas Day.
Clay crib figures have become popular again. We find two types of crib figures – the Maltese and Palestine types. The Maltese figures are dressed up in local costumes while the Palestine type wears biblical attire. The main figures of the Virgin and St Joseph as well as the three Magi (sometimes referred to as ‘kings’) are always dressed up in biblical style. Many Maltese open their crib to the public. Some of theses cribs are exhibited in garages and small chapels. The local press usually features some addresses to help both locals and tourists visit these cribs.