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

Updated on November 15, 2019
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty collects various recipes from past generations and is interested in early American history, the Civil War, and the 19th century.

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. | Source

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 | Source

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.

Three Weeks of Christmas

In parts of Italy, Christmas is celebrated over the course of three weeks: December 17 to January 6. The last day is known as Epiphany, or Old Christmas. On that day, children open their gifts, but until then, they go caroling and recite poems door to door. It is a wonderful time of year, with families gathering on December 25 for festivities and church.

What Do the Fish Courses Look Like?

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Shrimps and garnishesConch fritters and dipping sauceCalamari frittersClams and pastaMussels Salt codSnapper
Shrimps and garnishes
Shrimps and garnishes | Source
Conch fritters and dipping sauce
Conch fritters and dipping sauce | Source
Calamari fritters
Calamari fritters | Source
Clams and pasta
Clams and pasta | Source
Mussels
Mussels | Source
Salt cod
Salt cod | Source
Snapper
Snapper | Source

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.

Early Italian Immigration Brought Us Great Restaurants

Rao's, a Southern Italian restaurant in NYC, has been an East Harlem landmark since 1896. It is said to be the toughest restaurant for which to make a reservation in the USA.

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.

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!

5 stars from 1 rating of Seafood Ecstacy
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Southern Italy at ChristmasSouthern Italy
Southern Italy at Christmas
Southern Italy at Christmas | Source
Southern Italy
Southern Italy | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2007 Patty Inglish MS

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      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        4 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        Happy Christmas and New Year!

      • erorantes profile image

        Ana Maria Orantes 

        4 years ago from Miami Florida

        I like your hub. It is fabulous that you know how to prepare and cook seven ways fishes. I love shrimps, calamaris and salmon. Thank you for your great recipes. You make it easy to cook. I am going to enjoy my cooking with your help.

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        4 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        Thanks for your comment and suggestions - it;s a good time of the year to try something new!

      • profile image

        James Trentadue 

        5 years ago from Madison, WI.

        MMMMM GOOOD!

        I am 1st generation Piason from the boot (Bari). I make my Spaghetti gravy very similar to your "7 Fishes" (except a nice red wine). I use chunks of pork (browned and tossed in), then, meatballs made with fresh parsley, Italian seasoning, garlic, grated cheese and Italian breadcrums. Brown and simmer for 4 hrs after a boil. VIOLA!

        Ima' goin 'to try your recipie soon!

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        8 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        You will enjoy it a lot, I'm sure, Christine. Thanks for posting.

      • profile image

        Christine de Verteuil 

        8 years ago

        I ate it at an Italian Christmas dinner, It was delecious,would like to try it this christmas at home in Trinidad.

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        The spring season is a good time for remembrance.

      • profile image

        Meal Assembly Fran 

        11 years ago

        On the shore of the see of Galilee our Lord fed the multitude with 7 loaves and7 fish. I think these traditional feasts are a beautiful way to reflect the abundance that is available to us all.

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        Thanks very much for shaing that with us. I think it is a wonderful tradition.

      • profile image

        boston 

        11 years ago

        I've been doing this tradition since I was a child as my parents did as their parents did. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without it.

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        I like a lot of it too. :)

      • manoharv2001 profile image

        Manoharan 

        11 years ago from Bangalore - 560097, Karnataka, India

        I like the seafood

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        Thank you gabirella05. I would be proud to wear the Oscar of the Seven Fishes! It could be a pin. :)

      • gabriella05 profile image

        gabriella05 

        11 years ago from Oldham

        Sorry Patty I ment win

      • gabriella05 profile image

        gabriella05 

        11 years ago from Oldham

        Being Italian I can give you 10 out 10, you have got it perfect from the tradition of the Vigilia di Natale to the recipes. You put so much love and passion in to your work, you should wean an Oscar

        Thank you very much

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        Let me know how you like the recipe. And Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

      • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

        Zsuzsy Bee 

        11 years ago from Ontario/Canada

        Great HUB! I love seafood! But the rest of my gang don't enjoy it. So the only time I get to enjoy it is when we go out. (It just dawned on me I'm on my own now except for the odd weekends when my scholar comes home) It's a habit I guess, not having seafood on my grocery list.

        Great HUB as usual. I will try the recipes out when I come home after the holidays.

        Have a very great holiday, Patty and many thanks again for all the great hubs.

        regards Zsuzsy

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        Thank you Bob. I like the seafood pasta better than some seafood by itself.

      • Bob Ewing profile image

        Bob Ewing 

        11 years ago from New Brunswick

        I am not a fan of seafood but these dishes do look good, great hub. Merry Christmas.

      • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

        Patty Inglish MS 

        11 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

        Thanks very much for the comments.

        I love the traditions of Christmas around the world, Cory. :)

      • Guru-C profile image

        Cory Zacharia 

        11 years ago from Miami Beach, Florida

        This is a beautiful hubpage, Patty, and one I'll read again and again. I wish you a Merry Christmas! Warmest Regards, Cory

      • Stacie Naczelnik profile image

        Stacie Naczelnik 

        11 years ago from Seattle

        I rarely eat seafood (it is the only "meat" I eat), but this sounds yummy.

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