The Feast of the Seven Fishes
Updated: Dec 24, 2021
What's It All About?
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a traditional Italian-American meal that is served on Christmas Eve. In Italy it's referred to as "La Vigilia" (The Vigil), commemorating the wait before the midnight birth of Jesus Christ and was introduced in America by Southern Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. It's origins are rooted in the age-old Roman Catholic custom of abstaining from meat and dairy on the eve of high holy days - in this case, Christmas. Why 7 fish? Why not 4, 5, or 6? Well, the number 7 represents wholeness or completion. For example, God created the world in 7 days in the book of Genesis and there are 7 sacraments in the RC Church. In some families, there are literally 7 different fish prepared for this meal. In others, it may be 3 or 4 different fish prepared in 7 different ways.
Christmas Eve Dinner, Buonomo Style
I always looked forward to Christmas Eve when I was growing up. I still enjoy it, but there was something different about it when I was younger. Me and my cousin Angela would always get dressed up in pretty dresses with white tights and black patent leather shoes. My brother and boy cousins would have on their corduroys, Christmas sweaters, and their crucifixes dangling on gold chains. We'd fill up the car with presents for everyone and boxes of dessert pastries and cakes. When we'd arrive at my grandparents house in Richmond Hill, Queens, we'd be hit in the face with the delicious smell of fish sauce and fried shrimp.
Within 20 minutes of everyone arriving, a massive platter of antipasto would arrive on the table. To this day, I've never seen a platter that big in any other home or restaurant. Mounds of green and red peppers, and tomatoes, each one topped with alice (anchovy). There was cubed provolone for the kids, olives, artichoke hearts and hot semolina bread in baskets. While we all dug into the platter, Grandma would continue bringing out the rest of the antipasto, which involved the fried shrimp, insalata di mare (seafood salad), baked clams and something I absolutely dreaded...marinated pulpo (octopus).
Post Traumatic Fish Disorder
For some reason, the pulpo always ended up right in front of me. Great Grandpa Chris would look at me and say, "Mangia!" as soon as the octopus landed on the table. I'd look at him like he was insane and then he'd laugh at me. It was one of my Uncle Steven's favorite dishes and, being skilled at the art of busting chops, he would do whatever he could to gross me out. One Christmas Eve, he filled up his plate with the purple tentacles and proceeded to stare me down with a damn chewy purple thing hanging out of his mouth. The image of his blank stare while he ingested the octopus is burned in my brain. I'm just as skeeved today as I was when I was 10.
Once we were all but bursting from the antipasto, Grandma would start preparing the next course: linguine in sauce that had been prepared with scungilli and calamari. I never minded the flavor of the fish sauce too much, but I couldn't bring myself to eat the actual fish. Even as an adult, I can't handle the texture of scungilli and I'll only eat calamari if it's fried. It just makes me think of biting into rubber tires.
As years passed, and the big meal became too much for Grandma to handle, the daughters-in-law picked up some of the dishes so we could still celebrate the feast. One year, my mom enlisted me to help her prepare the calamari. I wasn't thrilled about doing that at all, but far be it from me to say "no", so I did what I had to do, cleaning and cutting the tubes into their infamous rings and gagging every time I separated the tentacles. I was managing okay until I got to one tube in particular and something like an inky looking eye popped out while I was cleaning it. I dropped that bad boy in the bowl and announced, "I'm done." That was the first and last time I ever handled raw calamari.
My mother then reminded me of the eel that used to live in the bathtub for a few days before succumbing to it's fate at the hands of my grandparents. In other words, "get over it".
Less Fish, Same Fun, More Memories
The excitement of Christmas Eve is still there, but it's a little different now that I'm an adult with a child of my own. Thankfully, I'm not wearing velvet dresses with white tights and patent leather shoes anymore. I love watching how excited my son is to see all of his cousins and open presents. Nowadays, we don't eat anywhere near seven fish; instead, we have maybe four.
Of course, we continue to eat way too much and end up with way too many leftovers because, let's face it...it's not an Italian meal unless there's enough food to feed a small army.
I'm grateful for such a wonderful tradition that Grandma and Grandpa Russo brought with them when they came to America, but they could've left the pulpo in Sicily.