REACHING THE TARGET ON A GREASY POLE - IL-GOSTRA
During the height of summer, when it is customary to hold feasts (festi) throughout Malta and Gozo, a popular game near the seaside is that of the gostra or greasy pole which today, in the face of other more popular and more modern sports, still forms an essential element in the customs and traditions of Malta's folklore.
The word itself derives from the Italian giostra. The latter has a different meaning to that practised in Malta, as it refers to the mediaeval tournament of the jousts while the one in Malta deals with a sea sport with a greasy pole.
It is thought by many that the sport of the gostra must have evolved alongside the Maypole and kukkanja, which were practised in Palace Square opposite the Grand Master's Palace in Valletta. Others opine that the sport must have been introduced from nearby Sicily in later days.
Be that as it may, perusal of some old prints would suggest that the sport flourished some time after the start of the British period of domination in these islands, following the expulsion of the French under Napoleon in 1798. In fact a particular print shows the Union lack hoisted both on a high pole as well as at the end of the greasy pole, to be snatched by the winner.
Whatever the historical connections, the sport had become very entertaining, as can be verified from the accompanying Picture which shows Balluta Bay, opposite the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The barge carrying the greasy pole is the centre of the fun game in action, with a ferryboat close by used to tow the barge itself. The very large number of spectators, both from high vantage points and in all types of small and large craft including luzzi, dghajjes and frejgatini is ample evidence of the sport's popularity at the time.
The spectators know that to run up the greasy pole is no mean task, and there is always the danger that moving quickly up the pole tends to unbalance many participants, who often fall awkwardly into the sea and at times even hurt themselves. Consequently, on the whole the gostra attracts the younger and more daring sportsmen.
It must be mentioned that to reach the target, the sportsmen have to run up a pole that is smeared with grease or some other slippery element. Its total length is about 10metres and it protrudes from the
Crossing over to Malta, we find that people still recall how the Turks, having landed at Marsaxlokk, Proceeded from Zejtun towards St George's Bay, Birzebbuga, as far as Tal-Brolli. The Maltese were under the command of the knight Murines (Umberto de Murines), who vowed that he would erect a church in honour of Our Lady of Loreto if the Turks were defeated.
In the ensuing struggle the Maltese came Out victorious and the church was erected to fulfil the vow. But the stones were miraculously transported some 200 Yards to the rise overlooking St George's Bay, on top of which the church now stands. An old painting (1548) in the small church shows a knight kneeling in prayer while the Turkish armada is approaching the island.
In a variation of this intervention theme the 19th-century historian Count Ciantar mentioned an old custom which was subsequently abolished. On St Paul's Day (February 10) it was customary for the farmers in the vicinity of San Pawlto Prepare a banquet Each one gave some in or its equivalent great disorder. The Bishop prohibited them, and together with the Apostolic Visitor, ordered that the money usually spent should, in future, go towards the saying of Masses to be celebrated on feast days for the benefit of the inhabitants of that neighbourhood.
And so it happened that on the day of that saint a strong bull, tightly bound though it was, broke loose of the ropes that bound it and set out at a run until, arriving before the door of the church, it paused for a while, then continued its headlong run to the shore and plunged into the sea.
On account of this those peasants believed that it was a clear indication that the Apostle Paul was displeased because the feast no longer being celebrated in the original manner. They went before the Bishop, pleading their case and asking permission to continue with the custom of preparingf the usual banquet; but the prudent prelate, following the orders of the Holy See, instructed them to abide by the decree and thus an old tradion came to an end.
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