What are the Seven Traditional Fishes for Italians on Christmas Eve?

Italy is known for many things: it’s traditions, it’s history, and of course its cuisine. However, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a popular Italian-American tradition celebrated in several Italian-American communities throughout the United States and only in limited places in Italy itself. Regardless, the feast (or grand meal) is a commemoration of Italian tradition, beliefs, and their food. 

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is open to modifications in the type of seafood on the table, but a few dishes have been known to make recurrent appearances:

  • Grilled Fish (served with pasta or vegetables)
  • Baked Fish
  • Seafood Pasta
  • Fish Soup (Wild Sea Bass)
  • Cudo di Pesce
  • Pesce in Umido
  • Sauted Anchovies

The Feast of the Seven Fishes (also known as The Eve or The Vigil) dates back to early Italian settlements in the United States. Today, the tradition can be traced back to Little Italy in the US and Sicily in Italy. The tradition comes from the Roman Catholic abstinence of meat and dairy products on the eve of Christmas following a fast. The number seven is a Catholic symbol – seven days of Creation, seven deadly sins, and seven sacraments, emphasise the significance of the number. This tradition is also marked with the number seven as it has seven dishes, which makes this one of the most well-celebrated religious events for Italians! 

History of The Eve

The tradition comes from Southern Italy where it is known as The Vigil (La Vigilia) and the feast in itself is seen as a celebration of Jesus’ birth. Although fasting on the day before Christmas Eve is seen as a commemoration of ‘the wait’ or ‘Vigilia di Natale’ for the midnight birth of Jesus.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes was introduced in the US by Southern Italian immigrants in Little Italy as far back as the 1800s. The first reference to the feast was made in The New York Times in the 1980s wherein the term ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes’ was popularized. 

Why seafood? The longstanding tradition of having fish comes from the Roman Catholic tradition of avoiding meat and dairy on the eve of their fast. Roman Catholics would therefore eat fish fried in oil to break their fast. Today, Italian-Americans celebrate the fast as a grand meal by having seven different plates of seafood. The number seven is typically considered as ‘God’s Number’ and holds no particular relevance to ancient practices as per se.

The Seven Fish

On Christmas Eve, families will sit down for a grand meal consisting of seven seafood dishes. Some households might feature up to eleven dishes, and some might limit themselves to less – there is not a hard and fast rule! The number seven was popularized because of its relevance in Roman Catholicism, although it holds no significance to the fast in itself. The only specification by religion is the abstinence of meat and dairy products. 

Some families might feature specific food or traditions to pay homage to Southern Italy and families affected by the 1800 conditions prevailing Italy. Other families might feature food enriched with Italian spices and techniques. 

The feast is served post-midnight in the early hours of the morning. The seafood featured in these dishes is regional over traditional. Typically, the feast consists of salt cod, shellfish, eel, calamari (squid), scungilli, and clams. Side dishes are often of vegetables (remember: no dairy). Next comes dessert, which may include traditional Italian dishes such as panettone, biscotti, pandoro, and panforte.

Dishes Served in Italy

It might be interesting to note that while the tradition is known to be Italian in America, and it does in fact trace back to Southern Italy, America is often considered to the country that popularized this seemingly Italian tradition. Therefore, the tradition would be a lot more popular in Little Italy than Italy itself. 

In Italy, the feast is seen less of a tradition as more as a grand meal. It is also known as The Eve or The Vigil over Feast of the Seven Fishes – a term considered to have become popular because of news articles on Italian-American traditions. 

Understandably, dishes served on Christmas Eve to break the fast in Italy are different than those found in America. In many parts of Italy, families break their fast with an Italian eel dish known as cenone. Eel is considered a delicacy in several parts of Italy and is a staple on every table.

Why Don’t People in Italy Know About the Tradition?

By now you might be wondering if the tradition is as widely popular as it is in Little Italy, why isn’t it just as popular (if not more) in the country of origin itself? The question is warranted and the answer is simple – the biodiversity between different parts of Italy has led to several different traditions spurting in the nation.

The earliest Italian settlements in the United States were from Southern Italy where the Feast of the Seven Fishes took root. Northern Italians might have fasted on Christmas Eve and opened their fast with seafood, but theirs was not a grand meal. Each of the 20 regions has a different culinary tradition for the Cena della Vigilia or Christmas Eve dinner. 

  • In Piemonte, families celebrate with agnolotti.
  • In Roma, families celebrate with fish soup.
  • In Sardegna, malloreddus is known to make an appearance on Christmas Eve.

Final Thoughts

Italians are known for bringing a part of Italy everywhere they go and the Feast of the Seven Fishes pays homage to the fact. Originating in Southern Italy and becoming popular due to Italian immigrants in the United States, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is celebrated post-midnight on Christmas Eve following a fast to commemorate the birth of Jesus. 

Eating fish holds relevance in Roman Catholic beliefs and abstinence from meat or animal products while fasting and the number seven was popularized as being ‘God’s Number.’

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