The expression, 'You had to be there' is not one I reach for that often. I prefer to attempt to rise to the challenge of description. This may be a tricky one. I'm going to tell you what we experienced last Thursday evening.
We were on holiday on the beautiful Maltese island of Gozo, a favourite haunt of ours and one with which we thought we were familiar.
To get the pronunciation over with, X = Z and J = Y; thus Xewkija is Zewkiya (zoo key er).
Gozo is almost entirely Roman Catholic. Every Gozitan village has a church with a patron saint and the saint's day is celebrated in the whole village, not just the church. This is called a festa.
Xewkija's church is dedicated to St John the Baptist (June 24th).
We have visited villages on festa night before and it is a mixture of relic-parading processions with robed clerics and acolytes, brass bands, fireworks, cheap fairground sidestalls selling toys that break the second the not-yet-disappointed child opens the packet, fast food outlets and a family re-union. All the bars in the village square spread outside and a bit more beer than usual is consumed, mainly Cisk (pronounced chisk). Cisk is brilliant when absolutely chilled but has a quality-lasting time once opened and warming of about three seconds. Buy a small bottle and neck it.
We have never stayed near the centre of a village in pre-festa week before. The excitement is racked up as more and more street decorations are displayed, louder and louder evening discos take place around the town and the church bells are rung increasingly randomly. Think of a wedding peel remixed by German prog-rockers Can and you get a little of the flavour. The time between the bongs was the sort of gap you'd get if someone had to run cautiously across a church roof in the gloom and tell a mate, 'Now'.
The biggest church dome in Europe is St Peter's Rome, followed by St Paul's Cathedral, London. Third biggest is St John's Xewkija. They get a bit competitive in the old church-building stakes in Gozo. When the people of Xewkija realised their church was comparatively small they built another one over it (the old church became a chapel). During festa week its silhouette is picked out in fairy lights.
So we have a party atmosphere cranking up and our next door neighbour tells us that Thursday night there is a big party in the square. Along we go.
The square is pretty full but mainly with family groups and big screen footie Germany v Portugal just finished. Not hugely interesting. We become aware that along the main road to the harbour, about half a mile of which is still technically in Xewkija, there is more activity and we walk towards it. It gets more crowded the further we go and some sort of procession is coming towards us. Very slowly mind. It moves about three yards then stops again.
Those who live along the way put chairs on the porch to watch. Some have strung nets of balloons across the street.
We go right up to the front and then stand aside to experience it passing us by. Here goes.
Four uniformed police are in the front, chatting amiably with the crowd and each other and, apparently, setting the pace. You need to bear this in mind because it helps you to understand that what we saw next was perfectly normal, no threat to society and condoned by the law.
Let's begin with the chariot. That's right. A wheeled chariot painted red and yellow was being pushed and pulled along. Three youths sat on board. One controlled a device for blasting silver and gold foil ticker tape into the night sky. One controlled a device for showering the following group with cold water. One controlled the other two. The front of the chariot bore an image of St John as St George. Here was the baptist as warrior.
Following the chariot were about 100 young lads aged 13-15. They wore this year's festa shirts, red and yellow with that same image of St John. Think of a more flamboyant competitor at the world darts championships and you won't go far wrong. One or two wore what were clearly last season's shirts but we had no way of telling if this was through irony, poverty or forgetfulness.
Here's the thing. They were all, almost without exception, out of their skulls on cheap alcohol. They were staying in a block and staying in the street behind the chariot but they were completely and utterly blodgered.
As the chariot went under a net of balloons it was released leading to a frenzy of popping and bursting, expulsions of water and foil and a trip to the following cart for more supplies of whatever it was they were drinking.
Following this group, with no sign anything untoward was going on ahead, was a uniformed brass band playing festa classics (everyone knew some bits of the tunes and clapped or shouted out at odd, but identical times).
There was a letter in the Maltese Times a few days prior to this from a bishop complaining that devotion of the saints had degenerated into fighting, drinking and loud music.
My best guess as to what we witnessed was a right-of-passage. It probably (make that certainly) wouldn't work in the UK but we saw an organised drunking (like a churching only with alcohol). Allow the young people, in safe surroundings, to get completely rat-arsed and experience the joy of their first hangover in the company of friends and family in order to moderate their future behaviour. That may not have been the point but Gozo is a safe island where people, leave their cars and houses unlocked and there is little drunkenness. This was an all-age occasion with the elderly sitting watching. There were push-chairs in the procession.
The disco (at which no-one seemed to dance but the soundtrack behaved as if it wasn't bothered it was enjoying itself) finished about 1.30 a.m. We listened to Faithless close the show as we read our books in bed.
The next day, as if to taunt the adolescent bedheads, 8.00 a.m, was announced with eight enormous firecrackers and ten minutes of manic bell-ringing. Poor mites. We imagined 100 simultanous Gozitan cries of 'That's the last time I'm doing that.'
Wouldn't have missed it for the world.