The Feast of the Seven Fishes is upon us, as tomorrow marks the annual Christmas Eve celebration that takes place in many Italian American households. Although many families will sit down and enjoy a plethora of seafood dishes from baked clams to baccalá, how many are fully aware of the history behind this holiday tradition?
The feast gets its origins from southern Italy, where seafood has long been a staple of the local cuisine. This is because, after the unification of Italy in 1861, the new government began to allocate the majority of its resources to the northern region of the peninsula, leaving the south poverty-stricken. In order to survive, many turned to fish as it was one of the only abundant and affordable food sources. As such, it was only logical that seafood became the focus of the annual Christmas Eve gathering, a time when Roman Catholics are also expected to abstain from meat and dairy until the feast of Christmas Day.
The number of seafood dishes served at the feast is likely a symbol of the Catholic faith, although the exact reference is up for debate. The number seven bears special significance in the Catholic Church and could represent the seven sacraments, seven virtues, seven deadly sins, or the seven days of creation. While this number appears more than 700 times throughout the Bible, it is possible that it could also be a reference to the seven hills of Rome.
Despite the clear connection between the Feast of the Seven Fishes and Roman Catholicism, it is not to be confused with a religious “feast day.” Rather, it is a large, celebratory meal where families gather to break bread while they wait for Christmas Day’s arrival. However, in Italy, this tradition was originally known as La Vigilia, La Cena Della Vigilia, Il Cenone, or La Vigilia di Natale, and likely bore the same name for the first wave of Italian immigrants to the US in the 20th century.
Fast forward to today, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is still a commonly practiced tradition among the Italian American community. Something unique about this celebration is that if you ask 100 Italian Americans what they plan to serve on Christmas Eve, you will get 100 different answers. While the exact menu will largely depend on the family, several popular foods that are common at the feast include anchovies, calamari, clams, eels, lobster, octopus, and shrimp.
While there are many other dishes that may find their way to the table, there is one element of the meal that is a must, and that is being in the presence of loved ones. Family and friends are a crucial part of the tradition, as the feast acts to bring people together to celebrate the holiday season.