The Feast of the Seven Fishes
Before Christmas, we celebrate The Eve, or The Feast of the Seven Fishes. But where did this celebration originate? Unbeknown to most, this exact tradition does not exist in Italy where Italians simply celebrate Vigilia, or The Vigil. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is entirely Italian-American. As my identity is heavily influenced by both my Italian and American parts, this to me is what makes our heritage so special. When the best of cultures collide, we develop new and beautiful traditions.
We don’t call it a feast in the essense of a holiday, but rather a great meal. On Christmas Eve, Roman Catholics abstain from meat, so the multitude of seafood offerings reflect this fast until Christmas Day. That being said, Christmas Eve is really the main event for Italian American homes. Christmas is significant of course, but from a celebration perspective, Christmas Eve is show-time and you best come hungry.
It’s unclear when The Feast of the Seven Fishes was made popular, firmly entrenched in the rhetoric of Italian-American holidays. I am certain you have met someone who claims to know definitively what the feast signifies but in all honesty, they are probably themselves just making it up. There are unknowns around the number seven, as the meal can sometimes include seafood preparations into the teens, or stop at twelve to symbolize the Apostles. Seven is the most widely used number in the Bible and this could be where it originated. “By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” The Feast may symbolize completion. 7 days in a week. You name it, there is a theory. But, the exact answer I can share is that there is no exact answer, and the origin isn’t what matters. Families together around the table is what matters.
There are no concrete rules around what seven dishes to prepare, and what is typical in your home may be a no-no in another family’s home. The feast’s significance and format vary from family to family as any deeply personal tradition should. Who could fathom 15 plated courses coming out of a tiny Brooklyn kitchen? But it happens. Italian Americans flock to their respective markets and buy out their favorite varieties of fish. There is pride in securing the same fish generations before them prepared. No script in hand, this labor of love and celebration of family is executed like clockwork year after year by sheer will. And the seafood salad is always delicious.
A typical feast includes many varieties but predominant seafood selections are whiting, baccalà, sardines, and squid. I have developed many recipes through the years for Christmas Eve, including Crispy Fried Calamari, Marinated Fried Whiting, Baked Clams, and Cavatelli ai Frutti di Mare among many others. Visit this LINK for more. My mother-in-law rises at 5am to fry the baccalà. What time do you rise, and what are you preparing? Do you stop at seven fishes, stretch it to twelves or perhaps keep it to two beautiful seafood courses? Whatever you choose, it’s a feast.
Regardless of the origins, the importance of The Feast of Seven Fishes has little to do with the number of courses and everything to do with the commitment to celebrating the spirit of the season around the table with loved ones. The number of dishes has little impact on the true meaning of Christmas; better to measure the feast in moments.
Merry Christmas, Buon Natale!
(PS: Share scenes from your holidays using #cookingwithnonna. I love to see what you are up to in the kitchen. If you preapre one of my recipes, tag me and I will share some of my favorites)