What Is Feast of the Seven Fishes?
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration that brings families together the same way Thanksgiving does with traditions that span generations, decades and oceans. Known in Italy as La Viglia, which translates to The Eve, as in December 24th, Christmas Eve, The Feast of the Seven Fishes isn’t a religious celebration (unless your religion is worshipping at the altar of amazing food). It really is just a big fish-forward holiday meal that traces its roots back to Italy. There isn’t a set menu but there are a few dishes most families include, and we’ve got lots of info here that will help you plan a Feast of the Seven Fishes that fits your lifestyle (and the size of your kitchen).
The History of the Feast of the Seven Fishes
Why do Italian Americans celebrate Christmas Eve with a feast like no other? Politics, poverty and family traditions all play into the tradition. Before 1861, the geographic area that’s now Italy was a group of regions, each with its own government. Before and after the unification, the southern regions were the poorest areas in the country, and fish was a plentiful food resource. The area became so poverty-stricken millions of people left and immigrated to the U.S. bringing their food traditions with them. The tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve comes from the Roman Catholic practice of not eating dairy or meat on the eve of some holidays, including Christmas. And the number seven is a symbol that’s repeated many times throughout the Bible – and in Catholicism, there are seven sacraments and deadly sins. Come the 1900s, all these ideas came together into the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The name itself, and the number of dishes is completely an Italian American invention.
Tips for Shopping and Prepping for Feast of the Seven Fishes
Buying the fish:
- Buy the freshest seafood possible from a reputable fish monger. Order what you need a week in advance because it’s a busy time of the year.
- It’s okay to serve small “tasting-size” portions of each dish. With this in mind, assume each recipe you make will serve 1 1/2 times as many people as it says: a recipe for 4 will serve 6; a recipe for 6 will serve 9; a recipe for 8 will serve 12.
- Plan for two or three courses to be cold or room temperature: there aren’t enough burners on the stove for seven.
- You don’t need a ton of side dishes; many of the fish dishes have one built in.
Setting up for the feast
- Consider how many plates you own: I love serving each dish as a separate course, but only when we have enough dishes to carry it off, or a sidekick that likes to help wash between courses. Three dishes served on one plate is fine.
- Decorations are traditionally Christmas-inspired, given that this feast is thrown on Christmas Eve.
Feast of the Seven Fishes Menu
Over the next week, starting today, I will be featuring a course/entre’ idea and recipe for you. There is no right way to celebrate it. Every Italian American does it slightly different. This is a good place to start. Feel free to mix and match recipes as you please. Today’s first feature is a great way to start a feast, (or any multi-course meal for that matter,) Shrimp Cocktail.