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Italian Traditions: The Feast of the Seven Fishes

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Unique to the Italian American experience and drawing on traditions from Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes marks the beginning of Christmas celebrations.

While Europe generally has some of the best and most festive celebrations of Christmas, the holiday season takes on even greater importance in Italy. This is mainly due to its position as the home of the Catholic Church and the importance of Christmas in the liturgical calendar of the Church. Italian traditions have also been prominent in American celebrations of Christmas, especially in cities with a large Italian immigrant population such as New York and Baltimore. And one of these traditions unique to the Italian American experience is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which is celebrated by families on Christmas Eve.

Origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes

While the actual origin point of this tradition is unknown, it draws heavily from several traditions that are still prominent in Italy today. First among these is the Catholic practice of fasting. The Church orders believers to fast on specific days throughout the year as a way to connect with their beliefs on a deeper level. Italian Catholics spend the entirety of Christmas Eve fasting before attending Mass at midnight. Once the Mass is over, they celebrate a big feast meal with their families to break the fast. And while the Feast of the Seven Fishes may be unique to Italian American families, it certainly draws from the celebrations and various menus of dishes that Italians have used to mark La Vigilia for centuries.

Why seven? Seven is a very important number, both in the Catholic faith and in the Italian tradition. God created the world in seven days in the Book of Genesis. The Catholic Church celebrates seven sacraments. Rome was built on seven hills. While you can’t point to any of these specifically as the reason for why the feast is celebrated with seven fishes, the recurrence of the number should tell you how important it is.

Various Dishes

While a purist will tell you that you need seven different types of fish for an authentic Seven Fishes Feast, many families will simply prepare seven different dishes and include other kinds of seafood in their count. What you’ll find at one of these meals will differ depending on the heritage of the family celebrating – a spread in a home with Northern Italian heritage will differ from that of a home with Southern Italian heritage. However, there is one dish, in particular, that seems to be omnipresent – salted cod (known in Italian as baccalá), a staple food that has been enjoyed in Italy and other Mediterranean countries for centuries. Otherwise, you might see shrimp dishes, fried calamari, clams, fish-based stews and soups, and much more being served!

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021 at 10:28 am . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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