Feast of the Seven Fishes
Mangia! The Feast of the Seven Fishes is what Italians do when they say they are fasting on La Vigilia (Christmas Eve). The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci) , celebrated on Christmas Eve, is thought to have originated in Southern Italy and is not celebrated in all parts of Italy. The feast typically consists of seven different seafood dishes in celebrating 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 Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence on Fridays and specific holy days. No meat or butter could be used on these days so observant Catholics would instead eat fish fried in oil.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a meal of fish and seafood, but there may be as many as eight or nine specific fishes that are considered traditional. Baccala΄, salted cod fish, is considered the most traditional in Southern Italy. Such a simple fish as baccala΄ is attributed to the impoverished regions of Sothern Italy. Other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve Dinner over the years such as calamari, fried smelts, cockles, shrimp, clams, scallops and lobster. I am sure that my relatives in Castellammare del Golfo will be eating scampi or langoustines.
Why seven fishes? There are many theories on why the number seven came to be associated with this tradition. Seven is the most repeated number in the Bible and appears over 700 times. The number seven is known to represent completion or perfection. “By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” During the Feast of the Seven Fishes, we celebrate the completion of God’s promise of the messiah through baby Jesus as it illustrates the completion of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant. The eating of seven fishes acknowledges God’s completed promise.
Some Italian families serve more than seven types of fish. Some families serve ten types for the Stations of the Cross and some serve thirteen for the twelve apostles plus Jesus. Whatever you are serving for the Feast of the Seven Fishes the most important thing is to enjoy the company of family and friends. Mangia!