What is the Feast of Seven Fishes?
The Feast of Seven Fishes is a beloved holiday tradition for most Italian-American families, especially those of Southern Italian heritage. In southern Italy it is referred to as La Vigilla, The Vigil, in celebration of Jesus’s birth. Basically stated, Italian Americans, many of them Catholic, abstain from red meat as a form of fasting on Christmas Eve. Seven seafood dishes are substituted instead.
Who Celebrates the Feast of Seven Fishes?
The Feast of Seven Fishes is mostly celebrated in English speaking countries by families of Italian decent, however it is not so common in all of Italy. It is usually only seen in southern Italy and Sicily where seafood and fishing is more prevalent.
So, Why Seven Fish Dishes?
The term “Feast of Seven Fishes” is specifically American, and the number of seven dishes is always up for debate. It is commonly believed that the title “Feast of Seven Fishes” was developed by restaurant owners marketing to Italian American families at Christmas time. The number seven can be said to represent many different things. Seven is the most common number in the Bible, as it is mentioned 700 times. Other theories state that the number seven represents everything from the number of Deadly Sins, to the Seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, or the number of hills surrounding the city of Rome. Some believe it represents the seven days in a week, which is the time it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem where Christ is believed to be born. Other families insist on nine fishes (the Holy Trinity multiplied by three), ten fishes (to designate the stations of the cross Christ died on), or even twelve fishes (to reference the number of the Apostles that followed Christ). There are also observers of the holiday that don’t even care what number of seafood dishes are served, just as long as it is an odd number of dishes.
What Should I Serve?
The type of fish eaten varies from family to family, depending on their own traditions. Some prefer to steer away from shell fish, while others would have the whole table covered with crustacean recipes. Also, certain dishes are considered staples like salted cod, or baccala as it’s known in Italy, and spaghetti with clams, known as spahetti alle vongole. These days any good seafood dish is appreciated, and families can change their menu to fit the size of the family attending, or any financial considerations as needed. It is also considered traditional to have a seafood dish fried in oil, such as fried shrimp, calamari, cod, or smelts. One dish in particular that makes the meal special is cenone. Cenone is made with eel which is considered a delicacy in Italy. That makes it more special and an important part of this Christmas Eve feast. It is also a good idea to include some side dishes like broccoli raab sauteed in olive oil with a generous amount of garlic, asparagus baked with lemons and olive oil, and plenty of bread. As far as appetizers, cheese and marinated veggies make a wonderful substitute for the traditional antipasto of the rest of the year.
You certainly don’t have to be Italian American to enjoy the Feast of Seven Fishes! Anyone can do it! If you would like to try a taste of authentic Italian food this holiday season, visit Italian Garden, located in San Marcos, TX.