As my husband and I have started our own little family, we’ve initiated our own Christmas traditions. Baking Christmas cookies, cutting down our Christmas tree, and seeing the Boston Pops are a few. But even though I love these new traditions that fuel the excitement of the holiday, my favorite tradition is a carry-over from my childhood.
When I think of Christmas Eve, the night has my favorite kind of energy. There is a sense of excitement and relief that all the “work” around the holiday is complete. The real excitement in our house, though, is the fish-fest known as the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. My family enjoys celebrating with food as a practice, but especially at the holidays. We have a judgment-free zone in respect to volume of food eaten. In fact, you are more likely to be judged if you don’t eat enough.
Referred to as “the vigil,” the Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American celebratory dinner on Christmas Eve.
The dinner includes at least seven different dishes of seafood. The tradition originates from the Catholic belief of not eating meat around the most holy times. The celebration commemorates the wait for the birth of the baby Jesus. The reason for the seven fishes has a variety of theories. The Bible happens to reference the number seven 700 times, and there are seven sacraments in the Catholic religion. I like that Italians simply felt the number seven was the luckiest. This is likely driven by the fact that my family is insanely superstitious about everything.
Growing up, our family tradition started with my grandparents. My Papa, a retired fisherman, created a spread of seafood dishes. He started cooking a week in advance, using a lot of pans and not a single recipe. The feast included different variations of fish to comply with the “rule” of seven, but we always exceeded the seven-fish quota. The evening continues today to be very loud with too much food. I love the joy my grandparents got from feeding people (and I married a man who feels the same). Carrying on their tradition allows us to keep a connection to them while celebrating our Catholic Italian-American heritage.
Now, many years later, my husband and I work to create our own version of the night.
We continue the tradition for those of us who experienced its origins. We also want our own children to experience a taste (pun intended) of our special family history.
Our favorite dishes every year are fried calamari and a cod-based fish stew. Part of the fun of the night each year is ensuring we have the required number of fishes, which typically includes cod, squid, haddock, and lobster. Over the years, Christmas Eve has remained such a special night for us. Even those of us who do not particularly care for cooking (I’m referring to myself here) are driven to do so because of how significant the night is. We look forward to continuing the tradition for years to come!