ST. JULIAN’S, MALTA – For more than a century, locals in the small Maltese town of St. Julian’s have celebrated their patron saint by running up a steeply angled log, smeared with lard, protruding over the sea.
The goal is to grab increasingly difficult-to-reach flags.
The unconventional form of worship is the centerpiece of the Feast of St. Julian, which takes place in late August and dates back to the 1800s.
Men, women and children take part in the contest, running up a 30-foot-long pole, known as the gostra, suspended over the town’s harbor. Whether they win or lose, however, the competitors all ultimately end up in the water.
“While I stand there right before I go up, I have a bad feeling in my gut that something might go wrong — which is very common — but the adrenaline rush overcomes that bad feeling, which pushes me to go,” said competitor Ivan Bartoli, 21.
The choice facing competitors is clear — when traction fails them, do they dive forward for glory, or try to make a soft landing? At events in the run up to Sunday’s festival tactics ranging from dives to clinging to the pole have been seen.
Though the festival’s official date is Aug 26, celebrations including several pole-climbing competitions have been taking place in the week running up to the event’s climax.
The prizes on offer for those who manage to grab one of the flags are nominal. Carden Mizzi, 29, who has been taking part in the competition for 10 years, said that victory was rewarded with “trophies or just a bruise.
“It is hard, depending on your run” Mizzi added, “If you’re afraid from the first few steps, you’d better jump off.”