Today, many families across the United States will sit down to a seafood bonanza—the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve celebration.
But why seven? And how did this tradition start?
Trying to pin down one explanation for the Feast of the Seven Fishes is harder than catching your dinner with two hands tied behind your back. It is believed that the tradition began in Southern Italy, but there are no accurate records to back this up.
While there are many different theories behind the Feast of the Seven Fishes, two things remain true: it is all about the seafood and family.
The observance of “Cena della Vigilia,” or the Christmas Eve dinner, began as a fast to anticipate the birth of the baby Jesus on Christmas Day. The fast would be broken only upon receipt of Holy Communion at Midnight Mass.
Theories on the significance of seven suggest it represents the seven days it took God to create the earth, as told in the Bible, or that it stands for the seven sacraments.
But some families change up the number: three fishes to represent the three wise men or the holy trinity, or 13 fish varieties representing one of the 12 apostles and one final one to represent Jesus. Still others have 11 fishes, to represent the apostles minus Judas.
No matter how many “fishes” are eaten, over the years, the fast on Christmas Eve has evolved into a penitential day whereas Catholics refrain from eating meat. The significance of the fish is tied to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat or dairy products on Fridays and holy days.
Thank goodness no one said anything about seafood—so bring on the calamari, baccala, shrimp, scungilli, clams, flounder, oysters and mussels, and whatever else your family enjoys. Mangia!
With reporting from Leslie Guarino and Janet Tumelty.