Feast of the Seven Fishes
Origins and tradition
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is part of the Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration, although it's not called by this name in Italy and is not a "feast" in the stricter sense of "holiday," but a grand meal. Strictly speaking, Christmas Eve is a vigil or fasting day, and the abundance of seafood reflects the tradition of abstinence from red meat until the actual feast of Christmas Day itself.
Today, it is a meal that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. It originates, however, from Southern Italy, where it is known simply as The Vigil (La Vigilia). This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.
The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence. In this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products – on Wednesdays, Fridays and (in the Latin Church) Saturdays, as well as during Lent and on the eve of specific holy days. As no meat or animal fat (there is no prohibition on milk or dairy products) could be used on such days, observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil.
It is unclear when the term "Feast of the Seven Fishes" was popularized. The meal may actually include seven, eight, or even nine specific fishes that are considered traditional. However, some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with nine, eleven or thirteen different seafood dishes. "Seven" fishes as a fixed concept or name is unknown in Italy itself. In some of the oldest Italian American families there was no count of the number of fish dishes. Dinner began with whiting in lemon, followed by some version of clams or mussels in spaghetti, baccalà and onward to any number of other fish dishes without number. Some have suggested that the idea of "seven" fishes originated in restaurants.
The most famous dish for Southern Italians is baccalà (salted cod fish). The custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà reflects customs in what were historically greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy, as well as seasonal factors. Fried smelts, calamari and other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.
There are many hypotheses for what the number "7" represents. Seven is the most repeated number in the Bible and appears over 700 times.
One popular theory is the number represents completion, as shown in Genesis 2:2: "By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work." During the feast of the seven fishes, participants celebrate the completion of God's promise of the Messiah through baby Jesus.
Other theories include: that the number represents the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church; or it represents the Seven hills of Rome that surround the city. It may represent 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).
- Baccalà (salt cod) with pasta, as a salad or fried
- Baked cod
- Clams casino
- Cod fish balls in tomato sauce
- Coryphaena (dolphinfish)
- Deep fried calamari
- Deep fried cod
- Deep fried fish/shrimp
- Deep fried scallops
- Fried smelts
- Insalata di mare (seafood salad)
- Linguine with anchovy, clam, lobster, tuna, or crab sauce
- Marinated or fried eel
- Octopus salad
- Oyster shooters
- Puttanesca traditional tomato sauce with anchovies
- Scungilli salad (sea snail)
- Shrimp cocktail
- Stuffed calamari in tomato sauce
- Stuffed-baked lobsters
- Stuffed-baked quahogs
In popular culture
- The Movie "A Wedding for Bella" or "The Bread, My Sweet" starring Scott Baio and Kristin Minter contains a reference to and the celebration of the Feast of the Seven Fish in an Italian American family.
- The novel Angelina's Bachelors – A Novel with Food (2011; ISBN 978-1-4516-2056-6) by Brian O'Reilly contains a description of a gourmet Feast of the Seven Fishes, including recipes for eel over arborio rice and Caesar salad with batter-dipped smelts.
- Philadelphia tee shirt company South Fellini started producing a The Shirt of The Seven Fishes featuring a list of the most popular fish.
- Melissa Clark (16 December 2013). "Surf’s Up on Christmas Eve. Feasting on Fish to the Seventh Degree". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-30.
It's a Southern Italian (and now Italian-American) custom in which a grand meal of at least seven different kinds of seafood is served before midnight Mass The fish part comes from the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve, while the number may refer to the seven sacraments.
- Craig Claiborne (16 December 1987). "A Seven-Course Feast of Fish". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-30.
It is a Christmas Eve ritual handed down from mother to son. Every year, Ed Giobbi, the artist and cookbook author, serves a holiday feast of seven fish dishes (seven for the seven sacraments). Each dish is cooked in a different manner -broiled, fried, baked and so on - or uses a different main ingredient. There is generally a fish or seafood salad and, inevitably, pasta served with a seafood sauce. ...
- Marchetti, Domenica (25 December 2012). "Feast of the Seven Fishes: only in America". American Food Roots. Retrieved 27 August 2013.
- Amanda P. Sidman, Amanda P. (22 December 2011). "Seven NYC Chefs Gives Recipes for Feast of the Seven Fishes". Daily News. Retrieved 4 January 2012.