Traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes

Celebrity Chef/Gourmand World Award Winning Author Maria Liberati shares some tips from her award winning book series. For more stores, recipes and tips from the book series join 100,000 worldwide subscribers at The Basic Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Liberati tm BLOG at www.marialiberati.com.

For Italian families, the Christmas Eve meal is all about the fish. While other Christian families throughout the world celebrate this momentous meal with various meats, it is a tradition for Italian cooks to serve seven different types of fish. In Italian, the meal is known as La Vigilia, or Feast of the Seven Fishes, and it is one of Italy’s most famous traditions.

By all accounts, the Feast of the Seven Fishes began as a southern Italian custom. The tradition was hugely popular in Italy’s most southern points, including the island of Sicily. At one time, Rome, the Eternal City, seemed to the farthest point north where La Vigilia was celebrated, although today, although Italians throughout the world celebrate it. No one knows for sure the significance for offering seven fishes, although there are numerous explanations for it. Some believe that seven fishes are served because it took God seven days to create the world, while others mention the Seven Hills of Rome. There is also the possibility that the seven fishes symbolize the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church, along with the seven sins. Today, the number of fishes served varies. Although seven remains the historical number.

For La Vigilia, there are no requirements as to which types of fish need to be served. In Italy however, eel is regarded as a delicacy and so, it is perhaps the only non fish on the table. Other popular fishes that are eaten on this special holiday are prepared versions of calamari, baccala (codfish), kale patties, oysters, scallops, whiting, clams, and shrimp. At the Feast of the Fishes, the meal usually begins with antipasto, the Italian equivalent of hors d´oeuvres. This can include a variety of cold foods such as cheeses and raw or marinated vegetables. Kyle Phillips, Your Guide to Italian Food lists what the Christmas Eve meal should include in a typical Napoletana celebration: drowned broccoli rabe, a choice of vermicelli with either garlic and olive oil, anchovies, or clams, roasted or fried eel, followed by other fish dishes of your choosing, and a caponata di pesce (fish salad) to wrap up the dinner portion of the meal. The meal ends with any number of delectable desserts. One that is almost always present is the requisite panettone, the famous sweet cake-like Christmas bread that is eaten during the Christmas holidays.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition that has existed since ancient times, and one which will surly continue. Life changes, but for Italian people throughout the world, this is one tradition whose religious and cultural significance outweighs everything else.

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  1. My parents used to always have smelts, shrimp, butterfish, cod(baccala), scallops, crabcakes, and alia-oilia(thin spaghetti with clams and oil), on Christmas Eve and Holy Saturday before Easter. It was my Grandfather’s tradition and my Mom learned from him how to cook these things. He also used to have pickled eel. I used to have the Baccala, shrimp, smelts, and spaghetti with clam sauce for the two holdays but have gotten away from it over the years. But I think this year I’ll start the tradition up again in Honor of my Granpa and Mom. My Mom was a Polish orphan whose Mother died when she was eleven so she had no one to show her how to cook. My Dad’s Father, Granpa was from Paternapoli, Italy, a widower, he used to do a lot of cooking. I have quite a few of his recipes.

  2. We usuallly eat whale testacles but they are hard to find around x-mas. Do you consider this an exceptaBLE MEANS OF FISH$

  3. My mom use to make the smelts, cod (Baccala),stuffed squid w/ spaghetti,fried haddock, stuffed clams, eels, and scallops.

    I have taken on the tradition of all fish on Xmas Eve and my brother and his family come over for it. I make basically the same except for the eels, and baccala. I added shrimp to the menu.

    Now that my kids and my niece and nephews are older they still look forward to the holiday. Not only for the food but for the
    time we spend together.

  4. Why Italians have a seven fish Christmas Eve

    We wanted to share some info about our Christmas Eve as it relates to the traditional Italian
    dinner and our catholic faith.
    The traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner never had Mussels, Scallops, Shrimp, Crab or
    Lobster. These are luxury foods and most of the old time Italians couldn’t afford them. They
    prepared Snails (Scungili), eel ( angulia), (Cod fish)baccala, Anchovies (alici) whiting ( merluzz)
    or pesche stalk ( dried cod fish containing the bones), smelts ( sperlani), and squid (calamari).
    The seven fish meal represents the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and also the seven sacraments of
    the church. According to Sacred Scripture the number seven also represents God or perfection.
    Our Christmas Eve meal is a time to fast before Christ’s coming …similar to what we catholics
    practice during Lent. We eat small amounts of each fish as if we were receiving the individual
    gifts of the Holy Spirit. Tradition teaches that this meal is not a feast and so we leave the table
    hungry for the Christ Child. The feast occurs on Christmas day when the Christ Child is born. On
    Christmas day the fast ends and meat can be eaten beginning Christmas morning. This was my
    own family tradition dating way back to my Italian ancestors. My paternal grandfather came from
    Riccia, Campobasso Abruzzi/ Molise region which is located northeast of Naples Italy. My
    maternal grandfather came from Peschici which is fish town North of Foggia located on the
    coastline of the Adriatic sea. Pesce in Italian means fish. Peschici is also located directly above
    Padre Pio’s San Giovanni Rotundo. The seven fish meal is not a universal catholic practice by
    any stretch of the imagination. Some catholics serve prime rib or filet mignon on Christmas eve.
    Fish is a penitential or fasting food. To my best recollection, our family NEVER ate meat on
    Christmas Eve. This Italian tradition varies from region to region and from family to family.

    PRAYER FOR THE SEVEN GIFTS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
    O Lord Jesus Christ Who, before ascending into heaven did promise to send the Holy Spirit to
    finish Your work in the souls of Your Apostles and Disciples, deign to grant the same Holy Spirit
    to me that He may perfect in my soul, the work of Your grace and Your love. Grant me the Spirit
    of Wisdom that I may despise the perishable things of this world and aspire only after the things
    that are eternal, the Spirit of Understanding to enlighten my mind with the light of Your divine
    truth, the Spirit of Counsel that I may ever choose the surest way of pleasing God and gaining
    heaven, the Spirit of Fortitude that I may bear my cross with You and that I may overcome with
    courage all the obstacles that oppose my salvation, the Spirit of Knowledge that I may know God
    and know myself and grow perfect in the science of the Saints, the Spirit of Piety that I may find
    the service of God sweet and amiable, and the Spirit of Fear that I may be filled with a loving
    reverence towards God and may dread in any way to displease Him. Mark me, dear Lord, with
    the sign of Your true disciples and animate me in all things with Your Spirit. Amen.

  5. coool

  6. We are looking forward t otrying this for this coming Holiday. It shoould be fun. Thnaks for the recipes

  7. Bringing back wonderful memories..Thanks

  8. First off, the dope calling themself Guido needs to get a life. I enjoy humor, not shear stupidity though. Also, scungili is conch, not snails as one \”Italian\” wrote. The feast of the 7 pesce (fish) is celebrated by Italians even if they have no clue of what it represents. I find this in many of the American/Italian families that I know. They ALWAYS serve only fish on Christmas Eve \”…because that\’s the way it is!\” and that is so true! Tradition! That\’s all there is to it. To try and teach the true meaning(s) is very important since nowadays traditions without meaning seem to be disappearing from families all over. This is a beautiful article and brings back wonderful memories of growing up in an Italian family. My Grandparents are both from a small town outside of Naples and I was married to a Calabrese for many years. Spent months in Italy and visited throughout the country learning the dialects and delacacies of the different regions…they differ vastly! All wonderful though in their own rights. This is why, I believe, that La Vigilia has some differences to it as to which fish are served and in what manner. We always have scungili, calamari, bacala, zuppa de pesce over vermicelli, cherrystones, shrimp (either scampi or baked stuffed) and baked stuffed lobster with crab stuffing and/or crabcakes. Sometimes I will make cod cakes or fried bacala chunks too. Agli Oglio con alici is a favorite of my father, my husband (who\’s Japanese & Irish!!!) and myself only so we usually don\’t have it on Christmas Eve. I have a step-son-in-law and step-daughter who refuse to eat fish so I\’m making some pasta and potato dishes they will eat instead. Hey, not everyone knows good food!eh? hahaha Merry Christmas one and all!

  9. This is my family’s favorite tradition my 6 and 4 year olds love any kind of sea food its so funny to watch them slurp clams and mussels..We eat small meals Christmas eve then 12 midnight is when the feast begins its so much fun!!

  10. All four of my Grandparents are from Southern Italy. All of my extended family still follow the tradition of eating fish on Christmas eve, celebrating the religious and tradition values my Grandparents brought with them.

    We may not like like the Bacala or the Calamari Sauce, but everyone screams if I try to take it off the menu.

    At midnight it always was mass and 40 people comming back to Nona’s for Sausage Sandwiches, and breaking open of the new wine.

  11. We are the best – with the best food and the best traditions!

  12. We celebrate the feast of seven fishes. we eat anchovi spagetti,The sauce for this has been in my family for generations. We also eat,fried shrimp,smelts,shrimp scampi,breaded califlour, and oher foods. I never knew why we had this tradition other then the fact that I come from an italian background. Thank you for sharing in the true meaning of our special tradition.

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  14. So nice to see all of the traditions, and I’m soo proud of my children and grand children that are carrying out the special days with the familia..which includes the Xmas Eve Seven Fishes.
    Doesn’t it make your mouth water just thinking of these dishes? The best is that it is past on for generations to come, with stories and pictures …Familia..
    Mangia!

  15. I still carry on the Christmas Eve tradition of the fishes.
    Also, many years ago, Christmas Eve was a day of abstinence from meat which may be a reason why the tradition of thevseven fishes originated. Whatever the reason, Christmas Eve traditions bring back warm and wonderful memories of those who are no longer with us. Bona Natale, and Bon Apetit!

  16. Guido, go fish yourself.

  17. what are the seven fishes?

  18. Being a southern Italian I’m very proud to maintain the tradition. My opinion as to why we eat fish on Cristmas Eve is because back in the time of Christ, animals were slattered and eaten in a time of celebration. The vigil day of Christmas (Christmas Eve) was the day of preparation for the birth of Christ. Being that (in those days) fish was a poor man’s food, they ate fish as a sign of abstinence. Christmas day, animals were slattered and feasted upon in celebration of the birth of Christ.
    As a child, I always remembered my mother setting an extra place at the table, when asked who it was for, she said it was a setting at the table for the Baby Jesus. I have been hosting Christmas Eve at my home for the past 12 years and I also to this day set an extra place at my table for Baby Jesus.
    One year I served my friend a piece of steak on Christmas Eve because she was severely allergic to fish……I felt like I had committed the ultimate sin and i never did that again. To this day she is still very happy to be part of our celebration and is just as content to eat everything else I put on the table. NEVER AGAIN TO SERVE MEAT ON MY CHRISTMAS EVE TALBE!
    Boun Natale everyone!

  19. My husband is Italian and I’m Polish. Our Christmas Eve dinner/Vigilia/La Vigilia is a mixture of both cultures, but there is a lot of similarity in them.

  20. Frank dec 19 2009

    I can rember when i was a very young boy my grandmother
    cooked all of the fish but as we got older and gramma passed on
    things change they were the good old days and you can never take
    them away thanks frank from franklin pk il

  21. Christmas Eve is our familys favorite day. We do all fish and each of us contributes a dish. There are three generations and each enjoys it more than the next. We have shrimp, pasta with alici, pasta with clams, scallops, cod, salmon and haddock. Although some of these may not have been the traditional fishes many years ago, we have adopted a bit.

    We are Italian and still have Sunday dinner every week at my Mothers (age 81) home. My Dad passed away three years ago but we still carry on all of the traditions both he and my mom brought here from Italy.

    Buon Natale.

  22. I have been looking for a recipe for pickled eel since my husbands grandmother passed away over 20 years ago. Does anyone have one they would be willing to share?

  23. For more recipes and entertaining tips for Feast of the Seven Fishes join 100,000 worldwides subscribers at The Basic Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Liberati tm BLOG at http://www.marialiberati.com/blog2 or get your copy of the book selected as the Best Italian Cuisien Book in the USA
    The Basic Art of Italian Cooking-Holidays & Special Occasions-2nd edition
    Happy Holidays, Tanti Auguri!
    Maria

  24. For more recipes and entertaining tips for Feast of the Seven Fishes join 100,000 worldwides subscribers at The Basic Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Liberati tm BLOG at http://www.marialiberati.com/blog2 or get your copy of the book selected as the Best Italian Cuisine Book in the USA
    The Basic Art of Italian Cooking-Holidays & Special Occasions-2nd edition
    Happy Holidays, Tanti Auguri!
    Maria

  25. Something learned today – merry Christmas to Italy! Italian food gets 12 points.

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