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The Feast of the Seven Fishes

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Christmas Eve Dinner. My favorite meal of the year.

Like any good Catholic Italian-American family, we celebrated The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Every year, my family would gather in my Uncle’s basement for a giant seafood dinner.  My Nana would make her homemade fettucine with Baccalà Sauce– we would feast on fish salad, mussels, shrimp and so on. The kids who didn’t eat fish would enjoy homemade focaccia and buttered noodles.  

We ate all night.  We drank all night.

While there was no shortage of wine, meat was something we NEVER had on Christmas Eve.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a longtime Italian Christmas Eve tradition.  It started with the Roman Catholic belief of abstaining from meat from Christmas Eve until the grand feast on Christmas day.  The symbolism that goes into this meal is something worth knowing.  

Not all people do seven.  Some do eight, twelve, or in my family’s case, thirteen!  But where do these numbers come from?

There are many different thoughts on why the number seven is so popular for this.  Some say it is because “On the seventh day God rested,” others say it aligns with the number seven in the bible, which is the most repeated number throughout the book.  Because so many family traditions have developed throughout the years, there is no clear or absolute reason why the number is seven.

Like I said, my family does thirteen, one for each Apostle and one for Jesus.  

The meal can be a combination of any types of fish you like.  The most traditional are octopus, shrimp, clams, anchovies and Baccalà.  A great Zuppa di Pesce can satisfy most of the requirements by having calamari, shrimp, fish, mussels and clams in it.  Other classics are baked clams or a chilled octopus salad.  The key is to have one to represent each of the seven different fishes, but not every dish needs to be seafood.

Much like any tradition, it is what you make of it.  

We’ve made a variety of side dishes including creamy polenta topped with a mushroom ragu, vegetable arancini, eggplant parmigiana, and roasted Brussels sprouts.  (A good Caesar or Greek salad counts too because there are usually anchovies in the dressing)

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an incredible tradition for bringing families together. Opening clams, boiling octopus, and cutting calamari with family always guarantees a memorable experience.

Some of my favorite holiday memories were made during The Feast of the Seven Fishes, partially because it’s not every day an eel will escape your grip and chase you and your cousins around the kitchen.

Whatever your family’s traditions may be– no matter what you believe– I would definitely recommend adding a hearty fish stew or clam pasta to your Christmas Eve dinner!   

Who knows, you may end up starting your own tradition.

Buon Natale!

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