The holidays are here! And with that comes a whole cornucopia of traditions, stories, mythology, the gathering of friends and family, and ancient rituals that still manifest into our modern lives - connecting us to the places where we live and the history we embody.
The feast of the seven fishes is one of these traditions. It is an Italian-American Christmas eve celebration and feast that is now celebrated all over the world.
So what is the story, the traditions, and the dishes that make up the foundation of this holiday celebration?
The origins of this story and resulting tradition aren’t especially clear - which is often the case with religious rituals and community celebrations. But of course, there are plenty of theories. Some compare the seven fishes to the seven days it took God to create the world in the bible, in the book of Genesis. Others link the seven fishes to the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the feast of the seven fishes is not an “official” catholic holiday and does not appear in the Roman Catholic Calendar.
Either way, most historians agree that the feast of the seven fishes links back to the Italian tradition of viglia. Viglia is a day of fasting. This fasting day takes place on Christmas eve and is concluded with a meal that (historically) features both meat and dairy. Somewhere along the migration pattern from Italy to North America, the feast of the seven fishes was born.
In addition to the moniker “the feast of the seven fishes”, this tradition goes by many names. Some examples include La Vigilia di Natale (Vigil of the Nativity), Cenone (great supper), Cena della Vigilia di Natale (the supper of the Vigil of the Nativity), and simply La Vigilia.
The Seven Fish
The typical fish that are featured in this celebration include baccalà (salt cod), frutti di mare (shellfish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungilli (conch meat) and vongole (clams), sardines, and anchovies.
Other food writers insist that the “seven fishes” actually depends entirely upon the region where people are celebrating - and that the fish on the plate will reflect the seafood that is available to families and friends. What you find on one table in southern Italy will probably be very different than what you find on the island of Manhattan or off the coast of Tanzania. The reality of our globalized world is that communities with a shared heritage often live in far-flung locations due to events such as war, famine, and economic opportunity. With these patterns of movement, our traditions shift and stretch as well. This holiday is an apt example of that.
And there is more interpretations to be had. Some people chose to cook up to seven different fish for their Christmas eve feast. Others actually chose one fish and cook it seven different ways. Other people focus on seven different courses of the meal - some with fish, other courses without. Either way, there’s usually a mouthwatering variety of various dishes.
Some Seven Fish Dishes
So, what are some of these delicious dishes?
Again, the particular dishes of this celebration will most likely reflect the coast and landscape in which they take place and the preferences of the people doing the cooking.
Some popular examples include frittelle di baccalà (cod fritters), La pasta e broccoli in brodo di arzilla (pasta, broccoli & arzilla fish soup) and spaghetti con la mollica e le alici (spaghetti with anchovies & breadcrumbs).
The possibilities are endless - with traditional and modern takes on beloved dishes being the staple that brings people together. And it’s not only about the fish on the table. Mushrooms, mac n cheese, tarts, and salads are also part of the festivities.
As is always the case when you start to scheme your own feast of the seven fishes, it is of critical importance to know where your ingredients are coming from and to support sustainable fishing companies that are doing the work to provide loved ingredients in a responsible way. Tinned fish or local fisheries in your area are a great place to start. This is how we will guarantee that the feasting, and our ability to gather and celebrate life, can continue on into the future for generations to come.
If you'd like to participate in your own Feast of the Seven Fishes, make sure and order our most recent Catch of the Month, which features everything you'll need to celebrate this year!