The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a popular Italian American Christmas tradition that is little known in Italy. It was introduced in the late 1800s by home sick southern Italian immigrants in New York City’s “little Italy” who saw the sea (in this case the Atlantic Ocean) as their link to home.
The ancient practice of eating seafood on Christmas Eve results from the Roman Catholic custom of abstaining from meat and dairy on the eve of religious holidays, including Christmas. And the coast of southern Italy boasts a diverse abundance of fresh seafood. Known there as La Vigilia, the celebration commemorates the wait for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. After a day of fasting and attendance at midnight mass, the famished faithful return home to an early morning meal of seafood dishes.
Why seven? There are many theories: the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, the seven days of creation, the seventh day of rest, the seven hills of Rome, the seven virtues (or the seven deadly sins). Today observances vary widely. Some serve seven courses (often six fish courses and a dessert) and some serve twelve, representing the apostles. In some homes a couple of kinds of seafood are cooked in several different ways, and in some a stew of many types of seafood is assembled and the cook calls it finito.
Home cooks are advised to choose dishes that are neither heavy nor rich, since room must be saved for all the courses ahead, and to order seafood in advance, since the fish market may already be depleted if you appear Christmas Eve Day with a long shopping list. And be aware that, like at Thanksgiving, family members may become attached to certain dishes and expect them to reappear annually. Culinary creativity may not be appreciated in the absence of nonna’s cannoli.