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Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Feast of the Seven Fishes - A Christmas Eve Tradition

The Feast of the Seven Fishes

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.

Typical Menus

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.

* Fried calamari (squid)...............* Scungilli (sliced conche)

* Baccal
à (cod)..................................* Scampi (shrimp)

* Mussels.............................................. * Clams


* Lobster stuffed with crab........* Seafood salad

* Seafood Risotto

Tanti Auguri a Tutti! Buon Natale!


Jannine said...

Ann, thank you for bringing back the memories of a tradition my Italian family followed. While everyone enjoyed fish, I got to eat fishsticks, lol. I have never liked the smell or taste of fish. I only eat fishsticks and tuna. Some Italian, right? LOL

Buon Natale

R. Ann Siracusa said...

Jannine, I don't eat seafood, except large fish like sword fish, so this wasn't a particularly wonderful meal for me. But the members of my extended Italian family love it. For our family, Christmas eve is much more important than Christmas day.

Harlie Reader said...

I was actually telling my hubby about this and how some of you ladies, being Italian, shared this custom. He loved it and had never heard of it before.

Thanks for sharing its roots.


jean hart stewart said...

Loved your posts, Ann. I always learn something new...Jean

Katalina said...

Thank you Ann for sharing this tradition. I love anything fresh from the sea so this sounded delicious!

Cara Marsi said...


Thank you for explaining the Seven Fishes. My family is Italian. When my grandmothers were alive, we always had the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. I never knew the tradition. It was just something we did but no one ever explained why, and since all four of my grandparents were Italian peasants I doubt they knew the reason behind the tradition. Now when my siblings and father get together on Christmas Eve, we try to have seven differnt kinds of seafood. My mother used to make baccala and smelts. My paternal grandmother owned an Italian-American grocery and she had dried cod hanging from the ceiling. These are all nice memories for me.

Tina Donahue said...

Fascinating. The food looks amazing. I'm hungry now. :)

books4me said...

Ann, how interesting! Thanks for sharing.

Janice Seagraves said...

I had no idea about his holiday food, but it all looks yummy. :) Love sea food.

Adele Dubois said...

My grandmother cooked for the Night of The Seven Fishes every Chrismtas Eve. Her holiday dinners are one of my fondest childhood memories.


Adele Dubois said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marianne Stephens said...

Oh yes...we did this, too! Loved some of the seafood, but not all. Now I've scaled it down and don't do 7 fish dishes...but we love them all!

Liz said...

HUNGRY now...great post! thanks

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