For many of you, the Feast of the Seven Fishes may not ring a bell . . . particularly as a Christmas tradition . . . but for some of Italian heritage, it may bring back fond memories of Christmas Eves Past. Before I lived in Italy, I’d never heard of this Christmas Eve tradition (even though my mother was a quarter Italian). Only after I married a Sicilian did I learn about this particular celebration.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa Dei Sette Pesci), also known as The Vigil (La Vigilia or Il Cenone di Vigilia), is a tradition believed by most to have originated in Southern Italy and was not celebrated in other parts of Italy. It is a feast to commemorate the wait for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. In my husband’s home town of Messina, Sicily, after the feast (which lasts for hours) everyone plays cards until it is time for midnight mass. Then there is a long procession and everyone walks to the local church following a status of the Madonna. After mass, some people would play cards for the rest of the night. Not me.
Eating seafood on Christmas Eve originates from the Roman Catholic tradition of not eating meat or milk products on Fridays and specific holy days. Because no meat or butter could be used on such days, observant Catholics would eat fish, typically fried in oil.
The number seven stands for the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and the seven days of creation. In Biblical numerology, seven is a number of perfection. Another explanation is the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ. Finally, it could refer to Mary and Joseph's seven days of travel to reach Bethlehem.
Today, it is a feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes (mostly shell fish) and pasta. Some Italian American families celebrate with 9, 11, or 13 different seafood dishes, but the tradition is seven.
The fish southern Italians are known for is baccalà (salted cod fish), a simple fish used extensively by the impoverished regions of Southern Italy. Fried smelts, calamari, and other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years. The menu varies depending on the family, but here are some of the favorite typical dishes.
Tanti Auguri a Tutti! Buon Natale!