The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition started in Southern Italy and now commonly celebrated by Italian-Americans. On Christmas Eve, instead of overindulging in rich, heavy foods, families gather to celebrate with seven seafood dishes. Or nine, eleven, twelve, or thirteen, depending on what Italian region the families hail from. The tradition is based on the Roman Catholic practice of abstaining from meat (and sometimes dairy) on Christmas Eve as families await Jesus’ birth.
La Viglia di Natale — the Christmas vigil. Everything sounds more beautiful in Italian.
Why seven? Opinions differ. My research uncovered that the number seven may refer to any (or many?) of the following:
- The seven Catholic sacraments — baptism, communion, penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and last rites.
- The fact that seven is “God’s number”— it’s the most used word in the bible, appearing more than 700 times.
- The seven hills of Rome.
- The seven days in a week.
- The time it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.
- The seven pilgrimage churches in Rome.
- The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
- The seven deadly sins.
- The idea of “completion” or “perfection” based on the seven days of creation with God resting on the last.
- The numerological concept of 3 + 4 = 7 — the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three and for Earth is four, so seven represents God on Earth.
For families preparing nine dishes, nine may refer to the Holy Trinity times three. Eleven dishes may represent the twelve Apostles minus Judas. Twelve dishes may refer to the twelve Apostles. And thirteen dishes may represent the thirteen Apostles plus Jesus.
Math is fun, right?
I’m no religious scholar, so I don’t know what the number seven actually represents. I do know that — whatever it means — seafood is on the menu. And I love seafood!
The Feast of the Seven Fishes Menu
For the Feast of the Seven Fishes, families serve a variety of seafood dishes, commonly including baccalà — or dried salt cod — shrimp, clams, mussels, and big fish, like tuna, or salmon. Pasta is usually on the menu as an accompaniment to the fishy feast. Anthony Parente, writer and first-generation Italian-American shares recipes for the seven dishes his family traditionally made on his website ItaliansRUs.com. His family served baccalà, baked shrimp, fried calamari, pasta with anchovies, pesce a la padella, sandy eels, and steak fish.
Thanks, Anthony, for sharing your heritage with us.
Religious references aside, I love discovering cultural, culinary traditions, like the Feast of the Seven Fishes. If you celebrate it, won’t you please share your experiences with our readers? If you don’t, will you consider adding it to your holiday plans? (To keep your menu sustainable, find the best seafood to serve using Monterey Bay Aquarium’s mobile app, Seafood Watch.)
This post was originally published on Eat Drink Better.