The Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa dei sette pesci) is an Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition that dates from the early 1900s. The custom is an adaptation of la vigilia (“the eve” or “the vigil”), a Christmas Eve celebration throughout Italy. Many Italians traditionally abstain from meat on Christmas Eve and the eves of other Christian holidays. This type of partial fast was required for centuries for Roman Catholics. To comply with the requirement, those celebrating la vigilia eat light dishes with pasta, soups, fish, and seafood for their Christmas Eve meals. Today, the feast is celebrated by Italian-Americans and in parts of Southern Italy and Sicily which have an abundance of fish. The number seven has a religious significance and is believed to be a reference to the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic church. Some scholars also believe it may be a reference to the seven hills of Rome.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes Tradition:
The feast is a time for families to gather together and enjoy each other’s company. While some families may include seven fish dishes, eight, nine, or even 18 dishes may be a part of this Italian-American tradition. The types of fish that are served depend on availability and both family and regional customs. Typically, fish soup, fried fish, and salted fish are all served. Baccalà, a dry salted cod, is often considered the centerpiece of this feast.
What do Neapolitan’s Eat on the Feast of the Seven Fishes?
Naples (Napoli) is one of the Southern Italian cities where the feast is celebrated. Neapolitans enjoy fish throughout the year and have more than 365 traditional recipes just for their beloved baccalà (Dried and salted Cod). Several fish dishes are on display at the Neapolitan Christmas table. The main dish is usually a classic recipe from Naples, baccalà alla napoletana. This dish uses olives, parsley, capers, and tomatoes to enhance the flavor of the salted codfish. Another dish eaten for the Neapolitan feast is Capitone fritto (Fried Eel). Notable for its meaty flavor, it has been enjoyed by Italians in this region for thousands of years. Anchovies are particularly well-loved in Naples and appear in several traditional dishes that could be served at the Christmas feast. For example, alici marinate (marinated anchovies) are raw anchovies with a lemon juice marinade that are topped with olive oil, parsley, and garlic. Alici dorate e fritte are deep-fried anchovies without bones. Other staples of the Feast of the Seven Fishes in Naples include pasta dishes. Two standard specialties are spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), which is a favorite meal throughout the year, and pasta aglio e olio con alici (pasta with olive oil, garlic, and anchovies). As with everything on the Christmas table in Naples, this dish combines regional favorites like anchovies with the Italian staples of olive oil and garlic.
Whether celebrated in America or in Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes allows families to gather for a festive meal and create memories to savor throughout the year.