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What is the Feast of the Seven Fishes

Last Updated on January 26, 2022

If you are familiar with the Catholic religion, you are also most likely acquainted with feast days. According to the Second Edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, feast days are “the annual cycle of liturgical celebrations commemorating the saving mysteries of Christ’s life.” Some feast days are marked with holy days of obligation where attendance at Mass is compulsory. Others require a form of fasting. Famous examples are Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent, where abstaining from meat is required to show the utmost respect for Christ’s sacrifice of his own flesh.

But what about the Feast of the Seven Fishes? Many people are not as familiar with this feast or are confused about whether the Catholic Church even recognizes it. Let’s discover more about this Italian-American Catholic tradition and what it means.

What is the meaning of the Feast of the Seven Fishes?

There is some controversy on where the Feast of the Seven Fishes originates. While it’s not part of the traditional Catholic teachings, it is thought to have been started in Southern Italy to commemorate the waiting of Jesus’ birth. It was known as “La Vigilia,” meaning The Vigil in Italy. In the late 1800s, Italian immigrants who landed in New York City brought the tradition with them, where it changed into an Italian-American practice.

As with most feast days in the Catholic religion, the Feast of the Seven Fishes marks a day of fasting from flesh and meat and is celebrated on Christmas Eve. As the feast dictated abstinence from meat, seven fish dishes are prepared on December 24th and presented to celebrate the waiting of Christ’s birth. It’s similar to a traditional Thanksgiving meal as to the abundance of food devoured amongst families.

What are the Seven Traditional Fishes of An Italian Christmas Eve?

While some modern feasts now go far beyond only seven fishes, common fish were traditionally used on this feast day. 

Baccala

A salted, dry cod baccala was a staple for Italian gatherings. Baccala or salted cod was common seafood accessible to even the most impoverished. While it was not a very high-quality fish, it was available for everyone and incorporated into feasts where meat was not allowed. After being soaked in water for a few days, the salted fish absorbs moisture and is then fried with capers and onions and served with a pasta or salad dish.

Clams

Clams are another popular item found on the Feast of the Seven Fishes and can be used in a pasta dish or added to a stew with a range of other seafood like shrimp and scallops.

Shellfish

There were plenty of options when it came to shellfish, and Italians used whatever was available at the time. Anything from lobster to crawfish to crab is made into delicious stews and plates of pasta to be devoured on Christmas Eve.

Eel

A delicacy, eel is often prepared either fried or baked on this feast day.

Calamari (Squid)

Chances are, if you have been to an Italian restaurant, you have sampled the calamari. It’s a staple during the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and it is often fried and used as an appetizer.

Scungilli (Conch Meat)

It’s a giant sea snail. It’s popular in a seafood salad alongside shrimp or scallops and makes for a delicious ingredient in a seafood sauce served over pasta.

Fried Smelts

Similar to trout, these fish have an oily texture. These tiny fish are often fried whole and can be eaten bone and all, almost like fish sticks. 

Even though the fish above is most commonly used during the Feast of the Seven Fishes, fish like mussels and octopuses were added as they became more affordable and thus more popular among feasters.

Why are there Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve?

The truth is no one is sure why the number seven was chosen for this particular feast day. Some hypothesize that it relates to the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith. Others say it is because of the seven hills of Rome. There is also no official answer on when the number seven was added to the feast day. While most Italian-Americans have seven fish on this day, the number of actual dishes is often much higher since recipes like stews and plates of pasta are popular and contain a wide variety of fish.

Do they Celebrate the Seven Fishes in Italy?

The Feast of the Seven Fishes became popular in America once the Italians immigrated over to New York in the late 1800s. Even though Italian-Americans celebrate this feast throughout the States, the elaborate meal began in Southern Italy. While the feast itself isn’t celebrated in Italy, Italians cook a traditional, elaborate seafood meal on Christmas Eve known as La Vigilia (The Vigil) to celebrate the waiting for the birth of Christ. It’s a fantastic meal where the family can come together to mark one of the holiest occasions in the Catholic Church.

References:

“Feast Of The Seven Fishes: An Italian-American Christmas Eve Legacy.” 13 Dec 2019. Paesana. Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021. <https://www.paesana.com/blog/feast-of-the-seven-fishes-an-italian-american-christmas-eve-legacy>

Bilow, Rochelle. “How to Cook the Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve Dinner.” 19 Dec 2014. Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021. 

<https://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/holidays/article/feast-of-the-seven-fishes>

“Feast of the Seven Fishes.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed 15 Dec 2021. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Seven_Fishes>

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