Symbolic structures, sensory experiences and nostalgia in cultural engagement: the case of the festa in Malta

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  • 1 University of Malta, , Malta
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This article refers to nostalgia and the way it is triggered by emotion-bearing symbolic structures and sensory experiences, to make sense of how these are played out in cultural engagement. It examines how the popular cultural event of the festa in Malta, an annual village feast of the patron saint, acts as a platform for nostalgic experiences. With reference to Jeffrey Alexander’s ‘iconic consciousness’, the arguments brought forward are positioned broadly within the notion of symbolic and sensory dynamics during the festa. Additionally, the collective shared experiences of festa enthusiasts, in a Durkheimian tradition, are explored to obtain knowledge on how they make sense of their past and present meanings as well as their feelings towards the village saint and the festa in general. Through the use of interviews conducted with persons who are actively engaged in this event, this article understands how their sense of belonging, both in terms of the material and non-material culture are central in the multimodal nostalgic meaning-making process.

Abstract

This article refers to nostalgia and the way it is triggered by emotion-bearing symbolic structures and sensory experiences, to make sense of how these are played out in cultural engagement. It examines how the popular cultural event of the festa in Malta, an annual village feast of the patron saint, acts as a platform for nostalgic experiences. With reference to Jeffrey Alexander’s ‘iconic consciousness’, the arguments brought forward are positioned broadly within the notion of symbolic and sensory dynamics during the festa. Additionally, the collective shared experiences of festa enthusiasts, in a Durkheimian tradition, are explored to obtain knowledge on how they make sense of their past and present meanings as well as their feelings towards the village saint and the festa in general. Through the use of interviews conducted with persons who are actively engaged in this event, this article understands how their sense of belonging, both in terms of the material and non-material culture are central in the multimodal nostalgic meaning-making process.

Introduction

This article is an exploration of the intersections of present meaning-bearing symbolic structures and sensory experiences in cultural engagement with nostalgia, to obtain an understanding of how a cultural event can act as a platform for nostalgic experiences. It specifically examines the cultural event of the festa, a highly popular annual village feast of the patron saint in Malta. Such examination is couched in the work of Jeffrey Alexander on ‘iconic consciousness’, who accentuated that ‘it is via the senses that iconic power is made’ (Alexander, 2010: 10).

Furthermore, this article also examines the degree of collective experienced by festa enthusiasts, in a Durkheimian tradition, by exploring how this event creates a space for remembering and reconnecting with social networks in the community. It is worth noting how Alexander’s (2006) work echoes the significance of Durkheim’s understanding of the meaning and role of rituals in the production of effervescence. In effect, the reconstruction of the general architecture of cultural sociology is considered as resting on the reinterpretation of Durkheim’s work (Weiss, 2019). While recognising and referring to this theoretical connection, my concern here is to explore how shared meanings are connected to memories elicited through sensory experiences to make better sense of celebrative sociability. To study this, this article draws on from empirical research with festa enthusiasts on their lived experiences during the annual religious celebration.

Specifically, this article focuses on the festa in the southern European country of Malta. The densely populated small island state of Malta consists of three islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – with a population of over half a million and a total land area of 316 square kilometres. Geographically, the local landscape has hundreds of churches and chapels around the islands, representing the strong affiliation with the Roman Catholic religion. The Catholic Church in Malta, as a pillar for the provision of non-state social welfare, has to date substantial political, social and cultural influence.

Commonalities in religious beliefs systems and the functioning of the family networks in Malta are among the similar characteristics that make up the peculiarities of the southern European cultures (Gal, 2010; Visanich, 2020). Southern European countries have been seen as having certain characteristics that distinguish them; these include not only their geographic proximity but also their common welfare state models (Esping-Andersen, 1990).

Culturally, Malta is considered as still relatively traditional due to its somewhat strong Catholic morality and kinship ties, making it an ambivalent location in between tradition and modernity (Mitchell, 2002). Individuals are continuously striking a balance between their willingness to gratify cultural norms in an insular small island state, as well as their desires to design their own life plans (Visanich, 2020).

In Malta, communal and national identities are very much influenced by the religious dominion in the public sphere (Mitchell, 2002). Predominantly, the public display of religious rituals, including the festa and the Holy Week processions are well attended by locals.

The making of the festa

There are a number of intertwining dynamics embedded in the festa – namely cult, culture, spirituality and identity. Enthusiasts construct their own meanings through collaboration and interaction with others within authentic communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). In theoretical terms, the festa presents a classic example of a Durkheimian ritual of community integration because it brings together, for a week or two, different community members in collective celebrations, with the patron saint as a central symbol or totem of the community (Mitchell, 2002). Rituals during the festa create what Emile Durkheim (1995[1912]). referred to as a mental state of excitement: collective effervescence that is an essential part of the spectacle of the celebration of the festa. Durkheim’s study was taken further by various scholars, by expanding on notions of social conformity and group-base agency (Pickering, 1984; Swann et al, 2012), and the way social emotions mobilise change and conflict (Collins, 2004).

The ownership and organisation of the festa are in the hands of two factions: the clergy who are responsible for il-festa ta’ gewwa (inside feast) and the various committees, such as band clubs in the villages, who are responsible for the more secular lay celebrations il-festa ta’ barra (outside feast) including street decorations, musical performances and fireworks display. Despite the festa becoming instrumentalised and commoditised in the last few decades (Boissevain, 1992), its ritual structure still points towards the persistence of a transcendental relationship between the clergy and lay celebrations (Baldacchino, 2014).

However, it is worth noting that the festa is not only a site for shared collective representations that strengthens both faith and society but also a fertile ground for different party-political factions, often producing antagonism. There is often factionalism and all-consuming rivalry between different confraternities, band clubs and groups of enthusiasts (Boissevain, 2013). In spite of the awareness of this antipathy, this article specifically focuses on the festa in relation to symbolic and sensory dynamics. Herein, the festa is not simply regarded in dichotomous terms of sacred/secular performative activity but is studied in relation to the sensory experience in celebrating the patron saint and the affective meanings of persons involved; ‘rather than simply happening, festa is something people do’ (Mitchell, 2002: 187). Specific attention is placed on the interplay between affective meanings and the interpretation and construction of memory.

Sensory experiences and the elicitation of memory

‘Memory is a method by which historical data can be brought to life and fruitfully contextualized with depth, detail and alternative perspectives, while historical enquiry can help make sense of the changing role of memory over historical time’ (Keightley, 2008: 191). Discourse on the elicitation of memory and nostalgia goes beyond capturing feelings and remembering meaningful events from one’s past. The notion of nostalgia is linked to concepts of collective, social or cultural memory to explain how memories, as reconstructed experiences or literally represented, are generated and altered. In particular, memories become legitimated within a context of accelerated social and cultural changes in late modernity (Keightley and Pickering, 2006). In effect, studies on memory and nostalgia are not studied in a vacuum but in relation to social interactions with public structures as well as biographical experiences.

Literature on memory studies perceive collective memory not as monolithic but in relation to changing identity sources such as class, ethnicity, religion and gender. Maurice Halbwachs (1992 [1925]) was the first person who referred to memory beyond the frame of the personal individual and suggested taking into consideration the social or group phenomenon. He argued strenuously that memory is socially constructed and should not be simply referred to as a property of the individual. Whereas, of course, it is the person who remembers past accounts, individuals are located within a specific group context or generation. On this stance, Halbwachs maintained that one’s conception of the past is affected by the mental images one employs to solve present problems; thus, the ‘collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past in the light of the present’ (Halbwachs, 1992[1925]: 34). He emphasised the collective role of remembering in saying that the individual’s memory is the intersection of collective influences of the family with the norms and values of the individual.

In effect, the cultural approach to the study of memory focuses on the premise that shared memories of the past are not accidentally produced by social groups but are a consequence of cultural mediation, primarily of textualisation and visualisation (Erll, 2011). In her book Astrid Erll (2011) refers to the sum total of all the processes (biological, medial, social), which are involved in the interplay of the past and the present within socio-cultural contexts. Particularly, nostalgic experiences are considered as having beneficial impact on the present in terms of enhancing social connectedness (Wildschut et al, 2010). This is particularly the case within the context of the celebrative event, triggered by its symbolic actions and sensory experiences while in contact with the aesthetic surface.

In his editorial introduction to The Celebration of Society, Frank E. Manning (1983) defines celebration by placing it within the wider category of cultural performance involving a dramatic display of symbolic actions and cultural values, with its major feature being performativity. There are three major components of performativity: the entertaining performances, the public stages such as the street, and the participatory performances, presupposing direct engagement of the audience. Celebrations are considered as the ritual means for producing collectivity, particularly marked by a system of temporal frameworks, giving time specific social meaning (Rusu and Kantola, 2016: 3): ‘As ritual tools of patterning time, celebrations have a paradoxical ‘disruptive-regulatory’ nature. As they disrupt the daily rhythms of everyday life, they also, at a higher level of social existence, regulate the communal life by imposing to it a cyclical pattern of recursive festivities.’

During celebrations, the senses play a central part in the multimodal meaning-making process. Through one’s construct of visual representation, one’s experiences, beliefs and values are concretised in dynamic way. Visuality is at the forefront of meaning making in an object (Lister, 2008) – oriented focus, in which vision is seen as ‘an active, interpretative process’ (Wood, 1996: 68).

In his concept of iconic consciousness, Alexander (2008: 12) explores experiences through the senses and how ‘meaning, soul, and spirit manifest themselves through materiality’. Building on the Durkheimian understanding of nonmaterial structures of meaning, yet focusing on materiality, Alexander (2008: 782) maintained that

contact with this aesthetic surface, whether by sight, smell, taste, touch provides a sensual experience that transmits meaning. The iconic is about experience, not communication. To be iconically conscious is to understand without knowing, or at least without knowing that one knows. It is to understand by feeling, by contact, by the ‘evidence of the senses’ rather than the mind.

The festa: a sensory experience

The festa is studied as an affected play of symbolic action celebrated outside in the public stage of the street and inside in the architectural setting of the church. The festa presents a sensory overload that imbues this celebration with particular meaning. Every village street is typically decorated with colourful streamers, flags and statues in an aural background of firework displays. Fireworks, as a central multisensory facet of the festa, is studied as an anthropological object of interest in its own right (Falzon and Cassar 2015).

During the festa week, local band clubs are synonymous for holding brass band concerts in the streets. Vicki Ann Cremona, (2014) characterises the festa celebration as oscillating between ostension and ostentation. By the former aspect, the statue of the saint, as the principal actor of the performance, moves between the inner space of the church and the outer space of the street. The ostentation part of the performance refers to the overall set of features that shape the dramatic effects of the festivity in which the community shows off to other rival communities: ‘Symbolically, the saint denotes and reaffirms the community’s distinctiveness, and in spite of the fact that religious fervor is on the wane, the festa is still a focal point of Maltese community life, precisely because its significance is firmly anchored within the community’s social expression’ (Cremona, 2014: 182)

The festa has been studied ethnographically, particularly by the anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain (1965; 2006; 2013) in his incisive commentary on the function of the traditional celebration and the dominant roles of political patronage in Saints and Fireworks: Religion and Politics in Rural Malta (first published in 1965). In spite of his claims in the 1970s about secularisation, when he maintained that ‘saints were marching out’, Boissevain revised this notion in 2013. Statistically, far from diminishing in importance, the festa is increasing in participation. According to the recent national Cultural Participation Survey (NSO, 2017), 68 per cent of participants said that they attended the parish feast in the 12 months prior to the survey. Nevertheless, there are different forms of cultural engagement during this event – my interest here is in exploring the meanings and feelings of those persons who regard themselves as enthusiasts and actively contribute to its organisation, not simply onlookers. For this reason, research participants were purposively chosen for their direct engagement and enthusiasm to obtain an understanding of individual affective meanings and feelings for the festa, mediated by their lived experiences. Particular attention is also put on their sense of nostalgia and its implications on the construction of their own life experiences.

Methodology

This article sets out to understand the symbolic meaning-bearing structures and sensory manifestations played out during the festa, triggering nostalgic experiences on emotional connection. To study this, I made use of a qualitative approach, extending over a period of approximately six months and employing in-depth interviews and a number of informal discussions. The parameters of the study also dictated the way participants were chosen. Participants were selected deliberately for their specific particularities, mainly the fact that they were actively involved in the festa. Specifically, interviews were conducted in Malta with young adults, between the ages of 25 and 30 years old, who had opportunities for tertiary education and occupied jobs that gave them a form of upward social mobility compared with their parents’ generation. However, the focus here is not an understanding of their omnivorous patterns of cultural consumption. All ethical considerations were taken into account including changing names to safeguard participants’ identity.

Meanings and symbols imbued with sensory experiences

All participants in this study referred to the codes, narratives and symbols that create a ‘thick’ description, as formulated by Geertz (1973), of the textured webs of social meaning surrounding the festa. This annual event provided a platform for enthusiasts to bring back memories of their village community. It is worth examining these meanings embedded and embodied in their lived experiences.

There was a consensus among participants that the festa, as an aesthetic sensory experience having substantial social value for them, was embedded in their family backgrounds. Specifically, participants referred to their feeling of conscious intimate engagement with their patron saint, as a semi-idolatrous figure. In a paradoxical manner, the saint is a distant public personage with whom they can feel a personal intimate relationship at the same time.

What is most striking is that some participants reflectively considered themselves as more secular compared to their parents’ generation yet equally devoted to their patron saint. One participant, Karen, considered herself to be strongly devoted to her village patron saint. She made sense of her engagement in the yearly festa by referring to the feeling of collective effervescence, very similiar to Durkheimian approach to totemism and collective integration. According to her,

‘[t]he devotion for the parish saint is something that I see clearly in many of the volunteers that put their heart and soul in this event. Many, me included, even travel to other countries to experience the feasts of that particular saint as celebrated in different cultures. For example, I have been to several Saint Sebastian feasts in Sicily. For me, one of the most beautiful parts of the festa is when the statue of the Saint is entering the church at the end of the festivities on Sunday evening in all its commotion, singing the patron Saint’s hymn. The atmosphere is very joyful and passionate, but I can understand the confusion a statement like this brings to those who are not born and bred in such atmosphere.’

The sounds and rhythms during the festa considerably affect the construal of meaning. In line with Alexander’s (2008) premise, Karen’s iconic consciousness is shaped by the physical experience and the contact with the aesthetic surface, whether by sight, touch or smell, which provides the sensory experience, transmitting meaning of the devotion shown by her and other enthusiasts, who like her, attribute the village saint with similar social value. Paul is equally affectionate about his patron saint and speaks about the sense of identity that is produced when referring to the saint as ‘aħna ta San Gejtanu’ (‘we, the St Gaetan’s crowd’). Paul maintained that while working in Brussels, he made it a point to travel to Malta during the festa weekend. For Paul and people like him, the saint, as a shared totem, is fundamental in strengthening the bonds between people and reinforces the collective conscience. Narratives of participants manifest their collective emotions and point to the way they share the same codes, narratives and symbols that create the textured webs of social meaning surrounding the festa.

The involvement of these individuals with tertiary level of education, and presumably with a high degree of cultural capital in the popular event, is not only a question of increased tolerance as asserted by Peterson (2005). Their feelings towards the festa, as a textured web of social meanings, are embedded in their lived experiences. In spite of the fact that these socially and economically upwardly mobile individuals are open to different cultural tastes and omnivorous patterns of cultural consumption, their choices to be actively involved in the popular cultural event are rooted in their lived experiences. The festa captures the collective emotions of participants through collective memory of their younger selves. This needs to be seen in view of the importance of the Maltese family as an institution with an extensive wide network of blood relatives. Boissevain (2006: 17) refers to the relation between the family in Malta and the Catholic Church:

Not only is the family the basic unit of Maltese society, it is also the basic unit of the Catholic Church, which [...] plays an extremely important part in Maltese social life. The Church regards the family as the principal unit of religious socialisation. In the family the individual first learns the values and mission of the Church into which he is born. The family is also the primary unit of reproduction for the Church, the agency through which it replaces and increases its numbers.

The manifestation of shared rituals during the festa was interpreted by participants as producing the continuation of collective memory, what Connerton (1989) referred to as the way societies ‘remember’ their identities. Herein, the festa is a case of celebrating the community. This is in line with Bosseivain’s (1992) argument that this traditional celebration reinforces the collective memory of the community.

Thus, Paul’s reference to ‘ahna ta San Gejtanu’, in this case is not only reinforcing rivalry against those devotees of another saint, but equally demonstrating his defence to his community honour, rooted in his lived experiences and his lost social ties with the San Gejtanu social group. In this regard, the festa and the village saint serve as a vehicle for communicating symbolic content and social interaction. Echoing Alexander’s (2006: 29) argument on the signification of rituals, ‘It is because of this shared understanding of intention and content, and in the intrinsic validity of the interaction, that rituals have their effect and affect.’

The significant effects of collective meanings are noteworthy here in the examination of narratives interwoven by nostalgic feelings. Participants described their feeling of exhilaration when speaking about the patron saint as their idol and maintained that only the ‘insiders’ can understand the social value attached during their festa rituals, Karen told me, “You have to be one of us to understand us and our devotion to the saint.”

There is continuous reference to the collective, often in a romanticised manner, with little mention of the more hedonistic individual activities, which are also an integral part of the secularised festa events. Nonetheless, the meaning of the festa goes beyond its sacred social value. For participants, particularly those who live abroad, the festa is an occasion to reconnect with social networks within the community and a way to re-establish a bond and communicate with friends and family members they have lost touch with. This was stressed by Karen who spoke passionately, not only about her sense of awe towards the patron saint but also the degree of sociability within their childhood community during the festa week. She mentioned the way her childhood and youth were fully immersed in village communitarian events. She remembered how her childhood was imbued with memories of her family involvement in the celebrations leading to the festa:

‘I grew up in a family where we prepare for the village feast all year round. My father is part of the team that takes care of the armar [street decorations] in the village. I started studying music with the local music band at the age of nine and have played with the local band during feast week for around eleven years. I can’t remember when or how I learnt the lyrics to all of the marches and hymns – it’s something that I did automatically, I guess. So, feast week for me brings back a lot of memories which I hold very dear. It’s the week where we meet up, laugh, sing and “have a blast”. Now that we have grown up and other priorities took over the “village activities”, festa week means meeting up with old friends and reminiscing on the past.’

Memory is a collective domain and certain cultural objects may stimulate the process of cultural memory. In this regard, reference to Richard Terdiman’s (1993) study on cultural memory is useful. For Terdiman, cultural memory is not only related to physical, tangible locations but also to visual forms; what he calls an ‘omnipresence of memory’. This is stimulated on a sensory level in which a smell or sound can become itself a cultural value. In line with this, the festa presents participants with a kind of ‘present past’ visual experience that connects directly to their life histories. In particular, most participants viewed the annual village festa and its commemorative effect with a feeling of nostalgia for their past. Nostalgia involves not only the feeling of regret for change but also questions how the past may actively engage with the present and the future (Terdiman, 1993; Keightley and Pickering 2006). Their memories of the active involvement of their extended families during the festa shaped their present views.

The dimension of temporality is central to the narrative of the ‘feast week’. The festa is celebrated on a temporal horizon in kairotic time that is lived as shared intersubjective experiences. For that week, the festa is conceived as a disruptive instant in the linear course of chronological time and this enable social communities to experience kairotic moments. Thus, just like in Young’s (1988) overview, celebrations are ritual devices of transcending time into a qualitatively experiential understanding of temporality.

For Andrew, who admitted to spending long hours at his office and running a busy life, celebrations act as an opportunity to ‘escape’ and a welcomed disruption of his daily rhythms of everyday life. “The village feast is a unique experience that reflects my efforts at seeking opportunities to ‘get away from it all’; some might even call it – perhaps unfairly, but certainly not too far off from the truth – a means of escapism.”

Andrew’s notion of escapism ties in with Cohen and Taylor’s (1992) arguments in Escape Attempts on the mundanity of everyday life. Its confines and constraints are contested in the way that we constantly assess our degree of satisfaction in everyday life. By referring to the way ‘people make out in their world, the whimsical, pathetic, desperate, outrageous ways in which they manipulate its demands’ (Cohen and Taylor, 1992: 31), Cohen and Taylor explore the routes of escaping the ordinary life. Accordingly, Andrew’s approach towards the festa was seen in terms of an annual escape route, away from the mundane everyday life abroad.

While participants narrated their lived experiences, they simultaneously referred to the village festa as central to their sense of identity. All participants referred to the close-knit family reunions during this annual celebration which bring back childhood memories. Sarah, a postgraduate, considered the festa as an opportunity to virtually go back in time, to a ‘simpler’ form of self. She said that:

‘It is an opportunity to reconnect with familiar faces from your childhood days, enhancing the role of festa week as a virtual reality or time-travel that allows you to pause for a few days and enjoy life in some of its simplest forms. … In parallel, the village feast is also a significant family and community get-together. While my parents and their siblings have grown up in the same locality, most of them have moved away from ‘the village’ and are now living all across the island. Yet, the festa week is one of very few occasions, besides weddings and funerals, where most of the family meets again.’

Participants use this annual event as a way to recapture their impression of a sense of community, irrespective of the fact that they share different educational and economic backgrounds compared with their extended families and close-knit communities. The affective meanings of participants and their shared sensual experiences surrounding the festa brought home to them sentiments embedded in their upbringing. Ann, coming from one of the smallest villages in Malta renowned for its highly close-knit community, gave me a meticulous description of her conservative family life history and their roots in a small village. She was conscious of the way her family influenced her dispositions and her choices to actively engage in the festa. Ann told me:

‘The festa leaves me tied to the past. During the week of the festa, I do not see only what is happening at present, but I see the story of the village that I was brought up in. I see the strength and collectivity in the way all members of society help out for one purpose, our festa.’

Sharing similar thoughts to Ann’s views, Paul maintained that the festa “does give a sense of belonging and a sense of identity, which is important in recognising your roots and in giving you a feeling of community, and a sense of life which is not being lived alone but shared with others”. Karen even referred to a feeling of being “homesick” when she once missed the festa because of working abroad.

Some participants referred to their direct involvement as committee members. However, Paul said that, owing to his professional commitments, he had to resign from his official involvement in the committee:

‘Due to my professional commitments, the festa has come to be limited to the three to four days with no specific involvement in the organisation leading to the event. As I result, I am able to enjoy the feast without the other concerns and burdens that were associated with being an integral part of organisational committees and the rest. From that perspective, the feast would signify the apex of a year’s work, and occasionally, enjoyment would be of secondary importance to the necessity of ensuring smooth operations.’

On a similar note, Sarah also had to let go of her duties in the village band club.

‘Lately my participation has declined a bit, since other priorities took over. A couple of years ago I used to attend rehearsals for the local concert during feast week and for the marches from a couple of months before. Now, I don’t have that much time to do so. Yet, I still leave that week free from other committments. When I was younger I used to help my father with the decorations from early in the morning. Now, I limit myself to participating in the daily marches and the procession on Sunday evening and finish off with the ‘xalata’ on Monday. Our house is decorated every year, which includes the flag on our roof.’

Paul was consciously aware of his emotional connections to the village community especially during the spectacle of the festa, but felt autonomous in other aspects of his life: “I feel completely autonomous in deciding what I want to do in life, and at the same time I feel very much at ease sharing my life with my community.” Andrew articulated this ambivalence:

‘In context of how autonomy and belonging juxtapose each other, the two factors are strangely interlinked – that is, it is precisely because life has become so busy and fast-paced, that sometimes one feels the need to return to his origins, just for a few days. The sense of belonging, not dependency, gives me a sort of reassurance that, despite the fact you might be travelling many times a year, spending most of your day quite far from your home, there is, ultimately, a place where you belong.’

Andrew’s sense of ambivalence between his emotional connection to the village community and his feeling of autonomy in his everyday life is a clear manifestation of how the festa acts as a platform for nostalgic experiences. The festa triggers nostalgia, as a kind of coping mechanism, to enable participants like Andrew to reconnect with their community once a year. In this regard, building on the study of Wildschut et al (2010), the enabling of nostalgia during the festa enhances social connectedness with friends and family members during this event while still having weak ties towards the community during the year.

Discussion and conclusion

This article has explored the intersections of meaning-bearing symbolic structures with sensory manifestations triggering nostalgic experiences in cultural engagement. It conceptualises the rituals and analyses social performance, embedded in a particular social event. It explored the degree of sociability and how this is played out in enthusiasts’ meanings of the festa. The lived experiences of enthusiasts during the festa is interweaved by the narrative, shared traditions and meanings that create shared sensory meanings.

There are several limitations in this study which needs to be acknowledged. To begin with, it relied on personal experiences of one group of people, those with tertiary education, on their meanings and feelings on the folk cultural event in question. A more cross-sectional approach could have been more desirable, to examine different social groups of people who are caught in similar meanings and feelings surrounding the festa. Elaboration on the manual dexterity of those involved could have informed the reasons for engagement in this cultural event.

However, there are also several gains from conducting this study both in theoretical and applied terms. This present study made sense of the creative assimilation of making the unfamiliar familiar, by exploring past and present feelings and meanings surrounding cultural engagement. For research participants their engagement in the popular event of the festa goes beyond cultural (omnivore) tastes. This article focused on some of these reasons for engagement in the festa.

First, festa participation is explained in line with memory studies on how individuals make sense of cultural participation and how this event is experienced and remembered. The collective role of remembering is vital in this regard since a person’s memory of the festa is at the intersection of collective influences from the family of origin. In line with Erll’s (2011) argument, the shared memory by this social group is the consequence of cultural mediation, primarily of textualisation and visualisation. Participants were immersed into the festa during their formative years and they reflexively were aware of how this shaped their dispositions towards this popular event and their feelings towards the patron saint. The festa is used as a platform to recapture their nostalgic impression of a sense of community, now perceived as largely lost or diluted, but for a few days a year, they can once again bring to the fore their early-lived experiences through their sensory ones. Thus, the meaning of the festa goes beyond the collective effervescence and is related to a degree of cohesion and family loyalty.

Second, such sensory experiences provide a space for this social group to ‘escape’ through the disruptive rhythms of their everyday lives and return to their culture of origin. For the socially mobile participants, the festa brings home a feeling of familiarity and sociability.

This article contributed to the debate by understanding the role of emotion-bearing symbolic structures with nostalgia. It suggests the need for a more nuanced exploration of the meaning-bearing symbolic structures embedded in an individual’s life experiences, which have a substantial impact on cultural engagement and cultural consumption. It is clear that the framework set out here for understanding the meaning structure in cultural tastes can be broadened and applied to explore other instances where collective memories and nostalgia play an important role in cultural consumption in other locations.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers. Their comments have substantially improved the content of this article. Particular thanks must also go to the participants of this research for allowing me to understand their meanings and feelings towards the festa.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • Gal, J. (2010) Is there an extended family of Mediterranean welfare states?, Journal of European Social Policy, 20(4): 283100. doi: 10.1177/0958928710374374

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Culture, New York: Basic Books.

  • Halbwachs, M. (1992 [1925]) The social frameworks of memory, in L. Coser (ed) On Collective Memory, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp 35189.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keightley, E. (2008) Engaging with memory in M. Pickering (ed) Research Methods for Cultural Studies, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp 17592.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keightley, E. and Pickering, M. (2006) The modalities of nostalgia, Current Sociology, 54(6): 91941. doi: 10.1177/0011392106068458

  • Lister, M. (2008) New Media: A Critical Introduction, London: Routledge.

  • Manning, F.E. (1983) Cosmos and chaos: celebration in the modern world in F.E. Manning (ed) The Celebration of Society: Perspectives on Contemporary Cultural Performances, Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Press, pp 330.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mitchell, J.P. (2002) Ambivalent Europeans, Ritual, Memory and the Public Sphere in Malta, London: Routledge.

  • NSO (National Statistics Office) (2017) Cultural Participation Survey 2016, Malta: Arts Council Malta.

  • Peterson, R.A. (2005) Problems in comparative research: the case of omnivorousness, Poetics, 33(5–6): 25782. doi: 10.1016/j.poetic.2005.10.002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pickering, W.S.F. (1984) Durkheim’s Sociology of Religion: Themes and Theories, London: Routledge.

  • Rusu, M. and Kantola, I. (2016) A time of meta-celebration: celebrating the sociology of celebration, Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, 7(1): 122. doi: 10.1080/09766634.2016.11885696

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Swann, W.B., Jetten, J., Gómez, A., Whitehouse, H. and Bastian, B. (2012) When group membership gets personal: a theory of identity fusion, Psychological Review, 119(3): 44156. doi: 10.1037/a0028589

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Terdiman, R. (1993) Present, Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Visanich, V. (2020) Education, Individualisation and Neoliberalism: Youth in Southern Europe, London: Bloomsbury.

  • Weiss, R. (2019) Between the spirit and the letter: durkheimian theory in the cultural sociology of Jeffrey Alexander, Sociologia and Antropologia, 9(1): Rio de Janeiro, www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2238-38752019000100085&tlng=en. doi: 10.1590/2238-38752019v914

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Routledge, C., Arndt, J. and Cordaro, F. (2010) Nostalgia as a repository of social connectedness: the role of attachment-related avoidance, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(4): 57386. doi: 10.1037/a0017597

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wood (1996) Editorial, Photographers, October Summer 25–70.

  • Young, M.K. (1988) Metronomic Society: Natural Rhythms and Human Timetables, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • 1 University of Malta, , Malta

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