On the night before Christmas, some people are preparing and decorating Christmas cookies, while others are readying a delicious roast beast for the oven. But for Italian-Americans, the traditional dinner can taste “a bit” fishy. This feast has no hard and fast rules, except one: seafood must be served!
While the precise origins of the tradition are not clear, the Feast of the Seven Fishes, also referred to as “La Vigilia”, in italian, honors Italian-Catholic traditions of eating lean, or “magro”, in preparation for Christmas holiday feasting. Christmas Eve is a vigil or fasting day, and the abundance of seafood reflects the observance of abstinence from meat until the feast of Christmas Day itself.
However, this hours-long meal is anything but indulgent!
Though connected with various Christmas Eve celebrations across Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is decidedly an Italian-American invention that stems from the early 20th century.
During these peak years of Italian immigration into the United States, most people came from Southern Italy, where seafood is an important part of the diet.
Historically, in 1861, the regions of the Italian peninsula joined to form a single nation. Thus, the states of the south, what had formerly been the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, would suffer for it. The new government began allocating most of its resources to the north, causing poverty and organized crime in the south, which were already problems, to worsen. The situation plunged southern Italy into such poverty that approximately 4 million people from the region moved to America between 1880 and 1924. It’s no surprise that those immigrants took their tradition of big, fishy Christmas Eve dinners with them, making it a popular Italian-American celebration still today.
Many Italian-Americans, as many Southern Italians, wouldn’t recognize the Christmas Eve without dishes such as baccalà (fried salted codfish) with a spicy caper-flecked sauce and grilled or fried eel (known as capitone, in italian). The custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà reflects customs in what were historically impoverished regions of Southern Italy.
Other traditional preparations include calamari, linguine with anchovies, seafood salad, and shrimp. To make the meal into a real sumptuous dinner, oysters and lobster might join a baked whole fish.
However, “Seven fishes” as a fixed concept or name is unknown in Italy itself! Interestingly, Italian Christmas Eve dinner, generally called “Il Cenone della Vigilia” (The great dinner of the Eve), calls for fish but makes no mention of the number of dishes and no Italian site made mention of the number of fish.
The number seven holds a variety of possible, mostly religious, associations, including the number of days it took god to create the Earth in the Bible, the seven cardinal sins, and the number of holy sacraments. In fact, seven is the most repeated number in the Bible and appears over 700 times.
Others say the number is just a good marketing tool used by restaurants and indeed, the earliest newspaper article containing the name “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is a 1983 advertisement for a restaurant in Philadelphia.
Some people cook really seven courses, some choose to make 12 (in deference to the 12 apostles). Many families keep their own traditions, but everyone who celebrates can agree: Seafood should be prepared and consumed on Christmas Eve.
Preferably with wine!
Christmas Eve dinners tend to be hosted at home, and turning down an invite to this fine feast would be seriously sinful…
Images from web.