Culture
Where did gulbiena come from? The story behind Malta’s curious Christmas tradition
The origin of the centuries-old tradition is not as clear as one may think.

Joanna Demarco
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It is unique to Malta to surround our cribs and baby Jesus figurines with noodle-like shrubs. Growing gulbiena, or ‘light deprived vetches’ to decorate our Christmas cribs has got to be one of Malta’s most intriguing traditions, especially with its odd requirements; namely cotton wool and darkness. The wheat, grain and canary seeds are usually planted five weeks before Christmas, and watered every two days, so that they will be at their best by the time Christmas arrives. The weeds, much like a Christian metaphor, grow tall in the darkness as they search for light.

But do you know how it all came about? Seeing as they are such a popular local Christmas custom, I figured finding the story behind the vetches would be easy... I was wrong.

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My quest for the story behind the gulbiena custom began like all other research begins... Google. Although there's loads of info about how to grow the gulbiena, and the ways in which it is used to decorate our homes and churches, the history behind it proved a little harder to come by. That being said, my Internet research was not completely in vain. I found out that the tradition has been around for many centuries, and rumour has it that it was commonly grown by farmers locally, and used as a decoration when other Christmas-time embellishments were not available.

My next attempt was the national library; a useful place for local information. I looked through pile after pile of books and magazines about Maltese customs - the Maltese crib, local flora and fauna. However, to no avail. There was no indication as to how the gulbiena tradition came about.

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Seeing as gulbiena is used abundantly by the Church, I thought of asking a few priests about the story behind the shrub. And while my sources couldn’t pin it down, they did tell me that within the Church, it is often likened to an angel’s hair due to its colour and form.

I was then pointed towards a historian who fielded the question back to source number one: The World Wide Web. Finally, a local group of crib enthusiasts provided the most probable origin; a link that goes way back to the Greek tradition referring to The Garden of Adonis, were seeds were planted and roots shot up, temporarily. The practise was then adopted in areas of Italy and Sicily, and that could be a plausible explanation as to how we inherited the custom.

However, the exact origin and story behind gulbiena still remains ambiguous, and as the time to start putting seeds into cotton wool draws is upon us, my curiosity about the story behind this curious little plant only increases.

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Do you grow gulbiena at home? What do you know about this intriguing local custom?

8th December 2023


Joanna Demarco
Written by
Joanna Demarco

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