Association President


CHRISTMAS 80 YEARS AGO BY JOSEPH GALEA DEBONO.

As this year’s Christmas season approaches, people have mixed feelings about how they are going to end up spending it. Spectres of days of self-isolation away from loved ones and close friends loom in our collective imagination. The health authorities have rightly warned that in the midst of the current second wave of the pandemic it will be folly to indulge in unbridled socialising with persons outside our immediate household. Others however are not prepared to approach the coming yuletide with a dose of doom and gloom and are likely to be less wary of the dire consequences of this crisis which has been labelled as the worse to hit the country since World War II. 

Charles B. Grech in his book  “Raiders Passed”, gives us his impressions and memories from the perspective of a young teenager of how his family and fellow refugees got through the first  Christmas of the war in Malta, in December, 1940, when they were living in Casa Depiro in Mdina with a number of other families from all over the Island, who had taken refuge in the silent city. He takes up the narrative:-

“Christmas 1940 was fast approaching so we decided to lay something special to celebrate this first wartime Christmas. The women took it upon themselves to prepare the food and the young men and small children took care of the decorations. This was exactly what my father had been waiting for, as he enjoyed putting up decorations. He told me “You know what we should do. We’ll go down to Sliema and fetch the Christmas decorations, festoons and lights and put them up over here.” After fetching the decorations from their Sliema residence, his father soon got busy decorating one of the larger rooms in Casa Depiro.

“On Christmas Eve, after reciting the Rosary, we heard Mass at the Chapel of Casa Depiro. It was said by Canon Martinelli, another refugee from Vittoriosa.   On Christmas Day, we threw a party, which was good by the standards of those days and everybody enjoyed every minute, particularly the teenagers. For a few hours, everybody seemed to have forgotten the war and was joking and laughing. The Christmas lunch was not a bad one for those times, for father managed to get hold of a turkey from a farmer who lived in the region of Wied il-Qlejja... We also had cakes, biscuits, custard and non-alcoholic drinks.”
   
 Facade of Casa Depiro in Mdina, next to the Cathedral 
Entrance hall of Casa Depiro
  
Terrace at the back of Casa Depiro with a grand view of all the east of Malta.  One of the corridors of Casa Depiro

But if Christmas 1940 went off rather smoothly in the prevailing circumstances, Christmas 1941 was a different matter. Malta had sustained a relentless heavy bombardment from Nazi aircraft for the first five months of the year followed by regular nuisance, mostly nightly, raids by the Regia Aeronautica for the remaining months until in December the Luftwaffe resumed where they had left off in May. By that time the evacuees had been turned out from Casa Depiro and Grech’s family had returned to Sliema.

All the damage in the photos below was caused after the resumption of the Luftwaffe onslaught in December, 1941.

 
  
 Damage to Police Station and buildings opposite , Sliema Bomb damaged houses in Prince of Wales Rd., Sliema. The demolished roof structure of the Gaiety Theatre in High Street, Sliema
 
  
Bombed row of houses on Qui-si-sana, Sliema.
Damage to Stella Maris Parish Church, Sliema
Devastation near Grech's home in Sliema

“Another Christmas was approaching but this one was going to be quite different from the ones before it, particularly from the one of the previous year, which we had spent in Casa Depiro … This time our group of friends from the same shelter started planning well in advance how to spend Christmas Day. We knew that, very probably, we would have to spend the day underground. Someone suggested we should organise some kind of event down in the shelter as this was very full at night.... One of the girls teasingly suggested: “Let’s have a party with goodies and a bit of dancing.” There were various other suggestions. At last we decided to hold a procession with the Baby Jesus and sing Christmas carols accompanied by two boys playing the piano accordion. We decided not to tell any one and spring a surprise. There was one thing which we wished to have and which we knew would be rather difficult to obtain and that was some biscuits and cakes.”
Grech describes how he managed to wangle some flour from a baker across the road and some sugar from a diabetic old couple who lived nearby. He convinced his obliging mother to try to make a cake or two out of these very basic ingredients. She used lard instead of margarine and instead of sultanas she used orange and lemon peel from fruit from their back garden. They ended up with two sizeable cakes.

Grech’s father had lent him a statue of Baby Jesus and offered to set up the decorations and coloured festoons in one of the four compartments of the shelter. Everything seemed to be all set up for the planned event.  “When the neighbours went down into the shelter that evening, they were pleasantly surprised on seeing the Christmas decorations in one of the compartments and the coloured electric lights surrounding the niche.… When we thought that the time was right, we walked down the steps leading to the shelter, carrying the Baby Jesus in front with two boys holding a candle each in their hands, on either side. They were followed by the ‘musicians’ and our small choir, chanting away…. One of the little boys started to deliver the Christmas Eve sermon. But he was not at it for long when all the guns suddenly opened fire…. The Luftwaffe squadrons on Comiso in Sicily had other plans for us that Christmas!” 

These excerpts from Grech’s narrative reveal the anguish and hardships which our forebears had to endure to keep a measure of normality going. They also illustrate the exuberance of youth in ever looking at the brighter side of what was a daily tragedy unfolding itself over our country. May they spur us on to better cope with the present hazardous situation as we head for another Christmas 80 years later.    

Quotes taken from “RAIDERS PASSED”, my English translation of Charles B. Grech’s book “Umbrelel fuq tas-Sliema” published by Midsea Books Ltd.; now in its third (2018) revised edition.

This article is reproduced from a feature appearing in the Times of Malta this month


Joseph Galea Debono.
PRESIDENT,
GEORGE CROSS ISLAND ASSOCIATION. 


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