Christmas Week is well upon us and my heart is beginning to pound. Of all the traditions of my ancestors and my childhood, my favorite without doubt is celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.
As I’ve noted before, I am not necessarily a fan of Wikipedia – I never rely on it for anything work related – but when it comes to certain topics related to this blog, I find its explanations concise and accurate. So, with props to Wikipedia, here’s what you need to know about the Feast of the Seven Fishes:
The Feast of the Seven Fishes … is believed to have originated in Southern Italy and is not a known tradition in many parts of Italy. Today, it is a completely Italian-American feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. Some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with 9, 11, or 13 different seafood dishes. This celebration is a commemoration of the wait, Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.
The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the medieval Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence — in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products — on Fridays and specific holy days. As no meat or butter could be used, observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil.
There are many hypotheses for what the number "7" relates to, one being the number of Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. Another theory is that seven is a number representing perfection: 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.
The most famous dish Southern Italians are known for is Baccalà (salted cod fish) … Celebrating with such a simple fish as Baccalà is attributed to the greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy. Fried smelts, calamari, and other types of seafood have [also] been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.
In our tradition – that celebrated annually by my husband, my children, my mother, and me, generally at my house (with a nice fire in the wood-burning fireplace, and a walk around our neighborhood Methodist church, which lines its four square blocks with luminaries) – the fishes and dishes change from year to year. Some years we create seven different fish dishes; other years we make cioppino, a fish and seafood stew that we serve over spaghetti.
This year for Christmas Eve we’re changing the venue and celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes with my brother Ralph, my sister-in-law Vicki, and their family. I can’t wait! I am slated to make shrimp and grits and she-crab soup, and to help my mom with a calamari salad. My mother’s other contribution is her baked clams, and my brother and his wife are making whitefish and salmon, and frying up oysters. (Oh, and I’m bringing the pignoli cookies, too! Yay.)
Ralph, my techie brother, has suggested we try to video blog on Friday. We’re just off the phone, undecided if that would detract from our enjoyment of being together or add to it. At very least, I’ll take lots of photos, so that either way, you can check back here Christmas Eve night for a peek at our authentic Italian-American tradition.
In the meantime, to get your taste buds going, click here to view and print my mom’s recipe for Hot Baked Stuffed Clams, which she brings to the table every year. And if you’d like to read more about the Feast of the Seven Fishes and baccalà, might I suggest this very informative book:
It’s one of our Christmas favorites!! (Simply click on the book cover above for more information from Amazon.com.)
In closing, I wish you all a safe and productive week ahead. And to quote a good friend and a follower here at Mangia, Figlie who, earlier this week, sent these words to my email Inbox: “Have a joyous holiday filled with love….”
Buona Vigilia di Natale!