If you live in the Northeast, chances are you know someone whose family does the feast of the seven fishes every Christmas Eve. Maybe your family even does it. The Italian tradition can be traced back to the South of Italy, where it is commonly called “La Vigilia.”
The tradition is simple. On Christmas Eve, Italian families all over enjoy seven distinct seafood dishes, or just seven fishes total. In Italy, the fixation on exactly seven fish is actually not all that apparent, but here in the US, many Italian-American families swear that there must be seven—no more, no less.
Here in New Jersey, a classic feast of the seven fishes will often include linguine with clams, mussels marinara, calamari and scungilli (conch) salad, baccala (salt cod) and more. More traditional families might throw fried smelts and marinated eels on the table, but the concept is simple—lots and lots of seafood and no meat at all.
Why seven, though? Why is that the magic number?
Why Do We Put Seven Fishes On the Table?
Traditionally speaking, in Italy, La Vigilia was used to celebrate the wait for Midnight, when Jesus was biblically born. This practice is rooted in Roman Catholic tradition, where it is very common to abstain from eating meat on the eve of what’s called a feast day. This can also be used to explain why many Catholics avoid eating meat on Fridays. But, the feast of the seven fishes as we see it in the US is not all as common in the Motherland.
The South of Italy was historically much poorer than the North, which can explain why many of the fish eaten as tradition are foods born out of necessity. Salt cod, eels and smelts are foods that—despite being delicious—were considered peasant food for much of history. Baccala in particular was a way to maximize the shelf life of cod.
In America, the feast holds a more cultural meaning than it does religious. Sure, the feast of the seven fishes probably did start widely as a religious celebration for Roman Catholics in America, and many state that the number is seven because of the seven holy sacraments—or even the seven deadly sins—but that’s not a universally agreed-upon claim. However, for Italian-Americans, the feast has long been used as a way to uphold their traditions, especially early on in Italian emigration when the culture was still widely considered a minority.
This is especially true in the Northeast US, where most Italian ancestry can be traced back to the Italian South. Southern Italians were impoverished in the mid to late 1800s, causing a large flux of immigration to the US, specifically to cultural hubs like New York and New Jersey. At the turn of the 20th Century, the rise of fascism caused millions more to leave Italy.
This troubled past for Southern Italians is commemorated with the feast of the seven fishes. Whether it is religious to you or simply cultural, it is a beautiful tradition that revolves around good food and a celebration of culture.
Feast of the Seven Fishes: The Menu
The menu can differ from family to family. For me, my family has always approached Christmas Eve with a mix of traditional and contemporary lenses. Scungilli salad and baccala might sit next to a sushi platter on the table. Sacrilegious? Maybe, but we never really cared about breaking a few rules.
However, this year, I’m in control of the feast and instead of having different family members bring different dishes to the table, I’m making the entire menu myself (with the exception of a spaghetti and crab dish courtesy of my Uncle’s crab-stocked freezer). No one asked to see my menu, but I’m giving it to you anyway. Here is my feast of the seven fishes for 2023.
Scungilli and Calamari Salad
Cold salad of La Monica scungilli, charred calamari, winter citrus, celery, parsley and mint.
Fried salt cod and potato cakes served with lemon aioli
Broiled Shrimp with breadcrumbs, lemon and herbs
Lightly dredged fish with charred lemon, capers and herbs
Linguine with Clams
White wine, clams, lemon, chili
Stew of shrimp, mussels, lump crab meat, tomato and fennel
Spaghetti with Crabs
Spaghetti with whole crab and tomato
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.