Feast of the Seven Fishes: An Italian Christmas Tradition (Plus One Recipe)
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.
Representing a Miracle Birth
The special Italian holiday meal enjoyed on Christmas Eve is called The Feast of the Seven Fishes, Vigilia di Natale, or Vigil of the Nativity, in which participants await the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.
This is a tradition in both Italy and Sicily and consists of at least seven fish-based dishes. Usually, pasta is a favorite accompaniment for all of them.
Feasting on fish and seafood is stopped 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:
- Calamari: Made of octopus or squid
- Scungilli [skuhn-GEE-lee]: The delicacy of conch, a sea snail.
- Baccalà: Dried salt cod
- Shrimp: This is any kind of shrimp and their cousins, lobsters, and crayfish.
- Clams served with pasta
- 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.
Three Weeks of Christmas
In parts of Italy, Christmas is celebrated over the course of three weeks: December 17th to January 6th. 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 25th for festivities and church.
What do the fishes look like?Click thumbnail to view full-size
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.
Famous for its Seven Fishes
A Big Feast on December 24th
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.
- 1 pound peeled and de-veined 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.
- Sauté the diced tomatoes and garlic in EVOO olive oil for 5 minutes.
- Add the herbs and the stock.
- Let this simmer and reduce in volume for 10 minutes.
- Add the dry wine and the seafood and stir.
- Simmer all of this until the mussels pop open.
- Remove the seafood from the pot and keep it warm.
- Arrange the cooked linguine in pasta bowls and ladle the sauce on top.
- Arrange the seafood attractively on top of each bowl.
- Garnish with fresh chopped basil, Parmesan cheese, and parsley.
Cook Time For a Feast of Seafood Ecstasy
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Questions & Answers
© 2007 Patty Inglish MS