In the early days of December 1921, when Fr George Preca shared his inspiration to organise a “demonstration” with the statue of Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve, he may not have imagined that such a manifestation would continue to become a cherished tradition, as it has been for the past 100 years.
Fr George presented his idea to the members of the Hamrun centres of the Society of Christian Doctrine, which he himself had founded in 1907 and later became popularly known as the M.U.S.E.U.M. The members of the Marsa and Blata l-Bajda centres of the Society were also called to be part of this venture. Fr George told the members: “This year I want you to organise a demonstration with Baby Jesus”.
Although it is more commonly known as the procession of Baby Jesus, Fr George envisaged it to be as a demonstration. He meant this event to be a lively and joyful gathering, openly proclaiming that the baby born in Bethlehem is truly God. He wanted to acclaim in a public celebration his conviction of the Christian faith : “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3: 16)
Even though a true and strong Christian spirit prevailed in Malta at Christmastide in 1921, Fr George wanted to foster even more deeply the spirit of gratitude for the Divine Infant who became one of us. The inexhaustible mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ inspired and possessed Fr George’s priestly heart for his entire life. That is why the feast of Christmas had a significant meaning for Fr George. In particular, the phrase in the first chapter of the Gospel of St John: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1, 14) was fondly treasured by him.
In fact, Eugene Borg, the first Superior General of the Society, related that in the earliest days of the Society, Fr George and himself would walk alone through what was then countryside in Santa Venera, and the young priest would teach him about the Bible, in particular the prologue of St John’s Gospel. Concerning this prologue, which is a concise theology of the Incarnation of Christ, Fr George confided to Eugene Borge that: “These verses are difficult but they are the basis of our religion”.
In the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 was inspired to set up the first Christmas crèche in the Italian village of Greccio, Fr Preca envisioned a special Christmas seven hundred years later; among the streets of Hamrun, the members carried a statue of the Divine Infant and so proclaimed their faith in God, who became man for the sake of all humanity. Fr George was motivated to carry out his inspiration in such an inventive and inclusive manner, with the participation of one and all. For St George Preca, as for St Francis, Christmas was not just a feast for children, but for every person, young and old, as all have been redeemed by the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man.
The members to whom he unveiled the idea were not prepared for such an unprecedented endeavour, but soon they all were enthusiastic about it. One of the members borrowed a statue of Baby Jesus from the Conventual Franciscan Friary of Valletta. On that first Baby Jesus Demonstration, many people came along carrying candle lanterns and bicycle lamps. Some members brought paper balls and palm leaves, and the Christmas Eve demonstration began, with all Hamrun residents eagerly joining the celebration. In their hasty preparations, the members did not think of obtaining a police permit. Fr George advised them that if anyone were to object, they should turn back to the Centre, but there were no problems; the demonstration went on as planned with no trouble.
During the procession through the streets of Hamrun, a member reverently cradled the statue of Baby Jesus in his hands. The children came along singing the familiar carol, Adeste Fidelis, and other Maltese traditional carols, particularly the Ninni La Tibkix Iżjed; this signature hymn became synonymous with the procession. One can still easily imagine the melodious refrain and radiant procession in the midst of the dark winter streets, which in those days were lit by only a few dim lamps. One also imagines the joy of the first members of the Society, and the other local residents that joined the demonstration, altogether carrying lights and singing carols.
In the years following the first Baby Jesus Demonstration of 1921, there was a time when Fr George wanted this demonstration to be held regularly within the walls of all the Centres of the Society, on every 25th day of each month. This early initiative did not last long, primarily due to the fact that sometimes this date would coincide with Holy Week and Easter. Instead of a monthly demonstration, Fr George introduced the Adoration of the Verbum Dei to be prayed on the 25th of each month instead of one of the usual prayers recited daily by the members of the Society.
Beyond the streets of Hamrun
The Hamrun demonstration of Baby Jesus spread quickly to other localities in Malta and Gozo. It became more orderly, centred around a sizeable statue of Baby Jesus in a manger, with more suitable lights and banners with various words related to the Birth of Jesus. The acclamation “Verbum Dei caro factum est” (The Word of God was made Flesh) prevailed in the demonstration, proclaiming the Incarnation of Christ.
Over the ensuing decades, the procession became one of the most attractive Christmas customs of the Maltese Islands. It has also been introduced overseas wherever the Society is established: Australia, Cuba, Perù, England, Poland, Kenya and Albania.
One can truly say that St George Preca is the Apostle of the Verbum Dei. He himself twice commissioned the Maltese artist, Rafel Bonniċi Calì, to paint Our Lady at the moment of her Fiat, joyous and trusting, as she accepted the angelic invitation to become the Mother of the Saviour. This painting of the Word of God Incarnate, depicted radiantly shining from within Mary’s bosom at the moment of entering her virginal womb, is known as the Madonna of the Verbum Dei. The insigna with the words of the Verbum Dei, worn by the members of the Society, is another example of Fr George’s devotion to the Incarnation. He wished that all wear this badge of the Verbum Dei, not only the members. Fr Preca had such an enthusiasm for propagating the words of the Verbum Dei that he directed the creation of a lot of cards with this Gospel message to be distributed to the public. There was a time when during the demonstration of Baby Jesus, children were given a paper badge in the form of a flower, with the words of the Verbum Dei.
To further emphasize Christmas as primarily a religious festival, Fr George wished that every family would have a crib with the Holy Child in some part of their house. He encouraged the members of his Society not to let Christmas go by without giving a crib with Baby Jesus, in one form or another, to every boy or girl to take home from their Centres. Now, as in decades past, the members spend many months prior to Christmas making plaster crèche figures and painting them as gifts for the children.
The Relevance of the Baby Jesus Demonstration today
The demonstration of Baby Jesus is still relevant today. While in Malta we have not altogether turned away from the very meaning of Christmas, secular interests have over-commercialized the celebration. Slowly, Christmas, the central feast of the Incarnation, is being promoted as a time of pointless feasting without Christ. Commercialism for its own sake tends to forget what Christmas is really about; it can easily become exploited and reduced to wrapped souvenirs signifying very little. It is sad when people can only wish one another a paltry “Happy Holidays”, instead of a jubilant “Merry Christmas”. In some countries it is not even being called “Christmas” because this is a label in which the word Christ is embedded. Instead, secular influences are now retiring “Christmas” and instead are busily promoting nothing in particular during the “Winter Festival”. In this way the virtues and blessings of Divine Revelation become hollow.
If one hundred years ago, St George Preca felt the need to arouse the interest of people to the reality and Mystery of the Incarnation, the need today remains and may be far greater because of the commercialism of Christmas and the direct or indirect efforts to remove the Incarnation, the very heart and centre of this holy feast.The idea of public adoration of the Word of God impelled Fr George to first introduce this procession within the village of Hamrun.
His intention was that it might inspire people reflect more together on the love of God, who, through the Incarnation, became one of us. Today, in Malta and in the world, there is the great need for everyone, young and old, to remember the awe-inspiring gift that God has come among us as Jesus and remains with us, His own people; with one adoring voice, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord! This is what it means that Christ came and continues to live among us and within us.
Truly, the demonstration of Baby Jesus reminds us of the Christmas memories of our own childhoods. Singing in our hearts the lullaby of Ninni La Tibkix Iżjed, we dare to hope and continue to share this holy procession that still attracts so many adults and elderly. It is much more than mere past reminiscence. It brings the mystery of the Incarnation close to our hearts and minds.
By Joe Galea