What is the Kukkanja? The slippery Maltese carnival tradition that fell out of favour
It has come and gone for three centuries now.
Climbing greasy poles seems to be a thing in Malta. The annual gostra is perhaps the event which springs to mind when thinking about such events. However, the kukkanja is also pretty identical. It is a carnival tradition, and throughout the ages, it has been appearing, disappearing, and re-emerging again in Maltese carnival celebrations.
The ‘cockaigne', to use its English term, is actually a Neapolitan tradition and refers to the climbing of a greased pole which is placed horizontally or vertically, in order to grab a prize at the end of it (traditionally meat, but sometimes a monetary prize). It is, indeed, a difficult feat and amusing to watch and, in fact, the metaphor ‘greasy pole’ is often used to describe the difficult route to get to the top in a profession (preferably without the surrounding laughter of a crowd).
The tradition in Malta started in 1721, during the rule of the Knights of St John, under the auspices of Grandmaster Marc’ Antonio Zondardi, a grandmaster who was reportedly popular with the Maltese people, and who strengthened many Maltese customs and traditions.
Descriptions of the event explain how, at Palace Square, on Carnival Monday a gathered crowd was “given signal to attack hams, sausages and live animals tied to long beams fixed against the guard house, and covered with branches of trees, who seized them and kept them.”
The event came to an end along with the ruling of the knights. However, the tradition was brought to life again in the mid-20th century by the Maltese government, though it only lasted a few years. It was then revived again in the '90s, but then also stopped.
In 2009 and 2010, the kukkanja was organised again in Valletta by the Arts Council, and the kukkanja is still popular in Gozo carnival celebrations. Have you ever experienced this slightly mad tradition?