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The Fishy Holiday Tradition Celebrated By Italian Americans

Not everyone agrees on the type of fish. There may not even be seven, but there could be more. Fried, baked, broiled, boiled, raw or otherwise, Christmas Eve for Italian Americans means fish. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a celebration of food, family, and the Christmas holiday. 


Like so many Italian American traditions, the Feast of the Seven Fishes has its roots inItaly, but has been reimagined through the bounty of America. On Christmas Eve, Italian American families gather to share a meal, and like its namesake, it features numerous fish dishes but no meat. 

The period of Advent, the weeks leading up to Christmas, are considered a fasting period in the Catholic tradition. During the Medieval era, three days a week known as Ember Days, the consumption of meat was prohibited. Those restrictions have since eased, but tradition still holds that Christmas Eve, the final day of Advent, should remain meat-free. Despite what some vegetarian friends might suggest, feasting on fish allows Italian families to celebrate while respecting the Catholic fasting rules. 

While The Feast of the Seven Fish is more associated with Italian Americans, Italians in southern regions do celebrate the Vigilia di Natale, the vigil of Christmas. And they mark this holiday with a seafood banquet, often consisting of seven courses. However, the feast is only part of the experience. Depending on the household, either before or after dinner, the family is meant to attend the church's Midnight Mass, a late-night service honoring the Nativity of Jesus. Since 2009, the Catholic Pope has authorized Midnight Mass as early as 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve making it easier for a late-night meal. 

Nobody seems to agree quite how Italian Americans took to calling the holiday the Feast of the Seven Fish (or Fishes), especially since many came from regions where serving more or fewer dishes was common. Most agree the tradition comes from seaside communities in the south of Italy, and likely solidified in the United States in the early 20th century. 

There is an early reference to the Feast of the Seven Fish in a 1936 Associated Press wire story that ran across the nation. However, the feast is being held by the Polish embassy in Washington D.C. in celebration of the holiday. Polish Catholics similarly have a tradition of eating a meatless dinner on Christmas Eve, although more typically it includes twelve fish and mushroom soup. Indeed, many of the Catholic traditions in Europe including Spain, France, and Portugal are meatless on Christmas Eve.

What is clear from oral histories and personal anecdotes is that Italian immigrants were celebrating Christmas Eve with a feast of fish since the beginning of the great migration beginning in the 1880s. Their newfound wealth in the United States likely made these feasts grander and with more food. The feasts were a way of celebrating the family. 

The phrase Feast of the Seven Fishes began going mainstream in the 1980s with the New York Times reporting on it in 1987. Craig Claiborne wrote then that it was a ritual passed through the generations and notes that each of the fish should be cooked using a different method. The artist Ed Giobbi, born in 1926, noted in the same article that his mother, who was from north of Rome, only ever cooked fish on Christmas Eve after moving to Connecticut. Since the 1980s, the Feast of the Seven Fishes has gained acknowledgment outside of Italian cooks, especially on television. It was even featured in a 2016 episode of Top Chef, the food competition show headed by Tom Colicchio. 

Nobody seems to agree either on why there are seven fish. The ancient Romans would celebrate Saturnalia during this time, a seven-day-long feast. The holiday was merged with the Catholic Christmas celebrations to encourage converts. But that's maybe not the only reason: Rome has seven hills; the Wisemen brought seven gifts to the baby Jesus; seven fish represent the Catholic sacraments; the world was created in seven days.  

But some families celebrate with twelve fish, one for each apostle or one for every month of the year, or for the very ambitious cook, some families serve thirteen fish representing the apostles and Jesus, not to mention producing a whole lot of dirty pots. Still, at some feasts, only eleven fish are served to represent the apostles, minus Judas. And for others, the fish count is just three: one for each of the Wisemen, or possibly simply representing the holy Trinity. Everyone has a different reason. 

There aren't any rules about what kinds of fish to serve, or how they should be presented. Traditionally, the Vigilia meal is served over seven courses, but in Italian American households, there are typically fewer courses, each with multiple fish. 

Today, many households begin with a shrimp cocktail, a dish with literally no historical connection to Italy. Shrimp cocktail became popular in the mid-20th century as freezer technology became widely available. Shrimp are highly perishable, and until the invention of artificial cooling, eating a shrimp more than a few miles from the seaside was risky business. Today, farmed shrimp are a low-cost luxury, accessible in pre-cooked platters everywhere from supermarkets to gas station convenience stores. But that wasn't always the case. Shrimp cocktail symbolized aspirational wealth, and became an ideal expression of the abbondanza.

A more traditional Christmas Eve dish is baccàla, a dried salted white fish, usually cod. The fish is common both in the United States and at Italian Vigilia feasts. Preparing baccàla for cooking first requires a good long bath. Soaking the fish for two or three days while changing the water every few hours will rehydrate and remove some of the excess salt. Once it has been rehydrated, it can be cooked more or less, in the same way, a fresh fish can. Southern Italians often prepare baccalà alla napoletana, a fried fish simmered in tomato sauce, or fry fish cakes. 

Less common on tables today are anguila, better known as eels. Before refrigeration, eels were a fish that could travel inland without spoiling, usually while still alive. They have a high tolerance for stagnant water and can be hauled around in barrels. Even when decapitated, eels will flail in the cooking pot. According to Frances M. Malpezzi and William M. Clements in Italian-American Folklore, eels were eaten at the feast to ensure happiness in the New Year.

The Christmas Eve feast was certainly a boon for fishermen. While every family follows unique sets of traditions, it was also an opportunity to eat seafood they wouldn't necessarily have had. Some of the other dishes that might make appearances are grilled octopus, sardines, lobster, or calamari. All of these can be fried, braised in tomato sauce, or brined and served as part of a seafood salad. 

As with any great Italian feast, Christmas Eve features plenty of pasta. Two common seafood pastas served by Italian Americans are Spaghetti with scungilli, conch, vongole, and clams. Mixed seafood pastas are also a great way to add additional fish, especially more expensive varieties like lobster. 

However, if all this seafood sounds a little too fishy, consider a Christmas Eve tradition from Le Marche: the feast of the nine vegetables. In this region, families celebrate by serving a meatless meal and filling their plates with items like cabbage and turnips. 

Ian MacAllen

Ian MacAllen is America Domani's Senior Correspondent and the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.


Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.