Skip to main content

The Italian Christmas Feast of the Seven Fishes (With Recipe)

Patty collects recipes and gadgets from the past and is particularly interested in early American history and all Indigenous Peoples.

Feast of the Seven Fishes at a restaurant called Otto in New York State. The number seven is a magical number in many societies.

Feast of the Seven Fishes at a restaurant called Otto in New York State. The number seven is a magical number in many societies.

What Is the Feast of the Seven Fishes?

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, Vigilia di Natale, or Vigil of the Nativity, is the special Italian holiday meal enjoyed on Christmas Eve in which participants await the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.

A tradition in both Italy and Sicily, this meal consists of at least seven fish-based dishes. Usually, pasta is a favorite accompaniment for all of them.

Feasting on fish and seafood ends just in time to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve Night to celebrate Christ's birth.

The feast itself includes seven seafood dishes, often featuring at least the following:

  1. Calamari: Made of octopus or squid
  2. Scungilli [skuhn-GEE-lee]: The delicacy of conch, a sea snail.
  3. Baccalà: Dried salt cod
  4. Shrimp: This is any kind of shrimp and their cousins, lobsters, and crayfish.
  5. Clams served with pasta
  6. Mussels
  7. The "big fishes" like large tuna, snapper, sea trout, salmon, and many others. Use your favorite!

Cooks and chefs often use sardines, anchovies, and other seafood ingredients as well to ensure that seven separate dishes from the sea are prepared.

A church in Sicily

A church in Sicily

Significance of the Number Seven

The number seven is what is known as a magic number in many societies, along with the numbers one and three. That is, these numbers, along with some other numbers in varying cultures, have special meaning and signify good fortune or good omens.

In the Catholic Church, which has been a major religious institution in Italy, seven represents the number of sacraments in the church faith.

In the Bible, we read about the seven days of creation in Genesis, including Day Seven, on which God took rest. We are taught in church classes and Bible School that the biblical meaning of the number seven is "perfection." Thus, Genesis tells us that the Earth and its inhabitants were formed in six days and God rested on the seventh day to appreciate his work.

In Italy and Italian communities around the world, the religious significance of the number seven is honored with seven seafood dishes at Christmas, which is the holiday that celebrates the birth of God's son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

Feast of the Seven Fishes Contest

The Italian tradition at Christmastime to cook with seven different seafood species for dinner after midnight mass is an ambitious challenge for a television cooking contest.

One such contest is the FoodNetwork's Throwdown, which attempted to use the traditional meal. However, in pitting Bobby Flay against the Pellegrino Family from the well known Rao's Restaurant in NYC, the network forgot that the city is home to a large immigration population of Italians—most of them good cooks!

The challenge could fit in only three fish dishes, though for this seventh season episode that is called Holiday Throwdown.

A Big Feast on Christmas Eve

The wonderful meal of several varieties of seafood and pasta is rounded out with many side dishes and the meal takes quite a bit of happy time in the sharing of it.

Side dishes for the meal include a number of home baked breads of various types, along with baked desserts.

Homemade wines are also served on the occasion of the meal by some chefs and hosts. The meal is a major event.

christmas-feast-of-the-seven-fishes

Seafood Ecstasy: A Seafood Pasta Dish

This recipe was mailed to me by a friend who is Italian.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Ready in: 55 minutes

Yields: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound peeled and deveined jumbo shrimp (16-20 per pound)
  • 3 dozen black mussels, scrubbed very clean
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 12 large tomatoes, diced
  • 2 cups shrimp, lobster, or vegetable stock
  • Fresh basil and oregano, to your own taste
  • Parsley, chopped for garnish
  • Salt and black and white peppers, to taste
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 pounds linguine noodles, cooked according to package directions
  • Parmesan cheese for garnish
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

  1. Sauté the diced tomatoes and garlic in olive oil for 5 minutes.
  2. Add the herbs and the stock.
  3. Let this simmer and reduce in volume for 10 minutes.
  4. Add the dry wine and the seafood and stir.
  5. Simmer all of this until the mussels pop open.
  6. Remove the seafood from the pot and keep it warm.
  7. Arrange the cooked linguine in pasta bowls and ladle the sauce on top.
  8. Arrange the seafood attractively on top of each bowl.
  9. Garnish with fresh chopped basil, Parmesan cheese, and parsley.

Please rate this holiday fish recipe!

© 2007 Patty Inglish MS