A Traditional Italian Christmas Dinner
The Feast of the Seven Fishes – “The Vigil”
The “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is a part of the Italian-American Christmas Eve Celebration and it is celebrated in some parts of Italy, usually Southern Italy and Sicily, as well as America. While technically it’s not a “feast” but a “meal” as Christmas Eve is a day of fasting, and the tradition of seafood is due to the abstinence of red meat until the meal on Christmas Day. The term “feast” has stuck and it is called the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” and is served on Christmas Eve as a traditional Italian Christmas dinner.
This tradition originates from Southern Italy and Sicily where it is known as The Vigil (La Vigilia) and it is the celebration that commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.
The tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve appears to date from the Roman Catholic tradition of absence (https://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Seven_Fishes.) Not eating meat, or even dairy, on Wednesdays, Fridays, during Lent, and on the eve of specific holy days, is still typical in many households. Observant Roman Catholics will eat fish rather than meat, so instead they indulge in “frutta di mare,” or seafood.
I got hung up on the “fishes” also because the plural form of “fish” is “fish” and not “fishes.” Maybe it’s due to translation? It’s known as “Esta dei Sette Pesci” in the old country. And it’s not about grammar and spelling. It’s about family and making memories.
It’s not clear when the “Feast of the Seven Dishes”, traditional Italian Christmas dinner, was popularized and, in fact, the meal may include up to thirteen dishes, especially in America. Lidia Bastianich, an authority on Italian Cuisine says you may have 7 or 13 but you should stick to odd numbers, “odd numbers bring luck in the Christian faith: the seven sacraments and thirteen apostles” (http://www.delish.com/restaurants/a1040/lidia-bastianich-feast-seven-fishes/.)Some believe that the number of seven originated in restaurants while others point to seven being a “holy number:”
- The number “seven” is the most repeated number in the Bible and appears over 700 times;
- The seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church;
- The seven virtues;
- The number represents completion (i.e. 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” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Feast_of_the_Seven_Fishes) and
- During the feast of the seven fishes, you are celebrating the completion of God’s promise of the Messiah through baby Jesus.
Other theories about seven include:
- The seven days of the week (also the number of days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem);
- The Seven hills of Rome that surround the city; and
- The representation of perfection (seven is considered the “perfect number.”)
Secrets to the Feast of the Seven Fishes:
The following tips on this traditional Italian Christmas dinner come from Lidia Bastianich, an authority on Italian cuisine, and from the website: http://www.delish.com/restaurants/a1040/lidia-bastianich-feast-seven-fishes/
- Stick to Odd Numbers – You can have seven or thirteen because odd numbers bring luck in the Christian faith (seven sacraments and thirteen apostles). She says that three could be acceptable but advises against it;
- Invite everyone – They host a feast for 25-30 people spanning four generations;
- Get help – have a fishmonger clean your fish for you and package it separately;
- Start early – she recommends starting three days ahead of the feast, particularly with the items that keep well like the marinade of sardines and ”Baccala Mantecato” (a whipped salt cod spread) if those are on your menu. And it appears that baccalà must be on your menu somewhere so why not in a lovely fish spread?;
- Serve it “family style” – Bastianich suggests “all of the salads, baccala, and sardines be served as appetizers on a stand-up table, where you can let everyone mingle around the dishes with great white wine from Friuli. Then sit down to the table with family-style platters of the main courses like a big pot of mussels, lobster, and winter vegetables” (http://www.delish.com/restaurants/a1040/lidia-bastianich-feast-seven-fishes/😉
- Keep it simple – it is not necessary to cover all the bases of Italian cuisine. Every fish doesn’t need a separate pasta. You can serve grilled polenta or warm grilled bread; and
- Remember why you are there – you are supposed to be having a good time with family and making memories. Isn’t that what all holidays are about? Bastianich says “I look around the table and see a snapshot of four generations of a family. I can’t help but think and reflect on the good times and how we weathered the bad times. The reverence and importance of the day and of family is most important, and for me it is a time of reflection” (http://www.delish.com/restaurants/a1040/lidia-bastianich-feast-seven-fishes/.)
What are the traditional “7 Fishes?”
- Baccalà – the most famous fish, especially for those in Southern Italy, is baccalà (salted cod fish.) This is a simple fish and reflects the customs in the historically impoverished regions of Southern Italy. This is usually served as a salad, antipasti, or fried;
- Calamari (squid);
- Whitefish or Flounder (incidentally, flounder has both eyes on one side of their body which gives some people, me, the heebie-jeebies); and
- Mussels or Oysters.
A Menu for the traditional “Seven Fishes”
Inspired by Greg Ferro’s story of growing up in an Italian-American family in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, this menu (and the recipes) come from the website: http://www.saveur.com/article/Menu/A-Feast-of-Seven-Fishes.
- Baccala Salad – this is made with baccalà, the salted cod fish that is the most well-known of the “Seven Fishes” (and to some of us a fish salad sounds far more appetizing than the “Creamy Whipped Salt Cod” that is served at Bastianich’s house during the “Feast of the Seven Fishes;)”
- Pasta con le Sarde – pasta with sardines. It is served by many Sicilian-Americans with golden raisins and fennel;
- Calamari with Potatoes and Peas;
- Stuffed Calamari – squid stuffed with breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese, parsley and oregano;
- Sauteed Sole with Olives – the topping for this dish is like a tapenade and is served often alongside roasted potatoes;
- Whole Roasted Branzino with Fennel and Onions;
- Lobster Fra Diavolo – lobster in spicy tomato sauce; and
- Shrimp Scampi.
It should be pointed out that a “proper Italian-American holiday should feature plenty of desserts from Tiramisu to Italian-American Christmas Cookies and more (http://www.saveur.com/article/Menu/A-Feast-of-Seven-Fishes.)
Other sources for information on the “Feast of the Seven Fishes:”
Photo by spantil