Monti Fest – A Unique Mangalorean Feast
Mangalorean Christians celebrate the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary as “Monti Fest”.
Monti is the Konkani name for Mother Mary. The Catholic church assigns a date for feasts and usually it is based on the date of a saint’s death, or if the date has a special meaning in the saint’s life, or some other meaningful event for a particular saint. In the case of the Nativity feast, it is celebrated on 8th of September, nine months after 8th of December, which is when the church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Konkani speakers of Mangalorean origin celebrate the nativity feast in a unique way. This feast day is celebrated along with the harvest festival on the same day as thanksgiving for the new crops. Feast preparations to honour Mother Mary start nine days prior along with novena prayers. Adults and children together attend novena prayers with fresh flowers as offering to Mary during the nine days leading up to the feast day. Children offer flowers as a token of love for the mother of our Savior and mother of all humankind. The devotees, including children with flowers and community leaders with freshly grown paddy corn, enter the church in a procession as an offering of the first bounty of nature to Mother Mary. A small statue of infant Mary is placed on a table in front of the altar. The paddy corn is placed next to the statue to be blessed and distributed to the congregation after mass, and children approach the table in a single line and throw flowers accompanied with the age-old hymns “Moriyek Hogolsian” and “Sokkod Sangatha Melyan” to express our love to the heavenly Mother.
St Anna, the mother of Mary, was barren until she was quite old. Her child is considered to be her journey from barrenness to first fruit. This can be one of the reasons why the nativity feast is also celebrated as a thanksgiving for the first harvest.
When the blessed paddy enters the house, it is placed on the altar with great respect next to a lit candle. This is symbolic of the hope of not starving for the rest of year. Once the meal is prepared some of the grains of paddy are peeled and crushed and mixed with milk. The milk is then drunk with prayers and devotion. The milk mixed with the new grain is called “Noven”. The oldest member in the house serves “Noven” to all. The new grain is also sent to missing family members who are away from home, so this feast also encourages family bonding and togetherness. Once the family members who are far from home receive the crop they too celebrate Monti fest within the next 8 to 10 days and consume the new grain.
Because Monti fest is also a harvest festival, only vegetarian food is served. Most of the families plant fresh vegetables at the beginning of the monsoon season and harvest is ready right in time for Monti fest so all homegrown vegetables are cooked on the feast day. An odd number of vegetable dishes are cooked and everyone is eager to prepare the most number of items on that day. The most awaited and can be considered the star the meal is the dessert dish “Vorn”. Vorn is supposed to be the tastiest Mangalorean sweet dish and it goes very well with the vegetarian cuisine. And because of the number of dishes prepared, the feast day’s special meal is served on a truly vegetarian plate that can hold all the dishes at once and that is the banana leaf.
Today, as every other year, Monti fest takes me back to my childhood days. It reminds me of how eagerly the parishioners waited for the nine days of novena prayers along with flower offerings. Three months before this feast, as soon as the monsoon season begins in June, as children our job was to start planting as many flower plants as possible. And the elders used to do the farming of paddy fields and growing of vegetable plants. All of this was done in preparation and anticipation of the nativity feast. Everybody’s main goal was to make sure we had enough flowers to offer for nine days of novena and enough vegetables to prepare as many vegetarian dishes as possible.
Another custom I remember was to make sure the newly harvested crop yield was to be brought to a freshly cleaned house. So the cleaning of the house also began a few days before the festivities began. And because monsoon season was just ending, the front and backyards also had to be thoroughly cleaned.
And another tradition that was eagerly awaited by us as children was the receiving of sugarcane after mass on September 8th. That was the highlight of the day for us.
Now the time has changed so the way of celebration has also changed. We carried flowers that we picked from our gardens and carried them in our dinner plates. The joy of picking flowers during the rainy season, with the umbrella in one hand and the flower plate in the other, was just too good. These days because everyone is busy and families don’t have so many flowers in their gardens, flowers are bought from the market and carried in stylish baskets. Back in the days, only children would offer flowers but now even adults participate.
Even though many things have changed from when I used to celebrate Monti fest, the zeal and enthusiasm with which the Nativity feast is celebrated are the same even now. When we hear the tunes of the same old hymns we get the same feeling of satisfaction and familiarity that takes us back to our celebrations in the olden days.
Our mother is the same even now so let’s all have a happy and blessed feast of the nativity of our Mother. I pray that she protects and keeps us always under her mantle…Amen.
Happy feast to you all!
by Jessy D’Sa