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The Feast of Seven Fishes: An Italian-American tradition



J-P Mauro - published on 12/17/18

The Christmas Vigil feast is one benefit of the traditional custom of abstaining from meat on the eve of the feast.

Every year, on Christmas Eve, many families across the US gather for the Feast of Seven Fishes. Although it is unclear exactly when the grand seafood feast became popular in America, it is considered one of the most popular Italian traditions in the nation.

“Wait,” You may ask, “Seven fishes? That can’t be right. Is that like in The Godfather when they say ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes’?”

Sure, “fish” usually serves as both singular and plural, but when talking about several different species of fish, it is grammatically correct to use the word “fishes.” That’s just what the Feast of Seven Fishes is, a grand meal, in seven courses, with lots of different species of fish lined up to the benefit of our palates. Typically each course could feature a different type of fish, or there could be several dishes made from two or three different fishes.

While the tradition comes from Southern Italy, many from the region have never heard of the Feast of Seven Fishes. Italians call it by another name, La Vigilia (The Vigil), as it takes place on Christmas Eve, or the Vigilia di Natale. The practice of eating fish on Christmas Eve stems from a traditional Catholic custom of abstaining from meat on the eve of a feast day.

It is also unclear when the number seven was landed on. In the Italian tradition they don’t count how many fishes are used, or how many dishes they create. Even in America it is not unusual to see the spread feature up to 13 varieties of aquatic aliment.

While some sources suggest restaurants developed the tradition of seven fishes, it is fitting for the occasion, as the number 7 is an important to Catholicism, signifying totality of perfection and completeness. Seven is mentioned over 700 times in the Bible and it is seen in the number of the days of the week, the Sacraments, and many of the signs in the Book of Revelation: seven churches, seven bowls, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders and seven spirits.

The number 7 also symbolizes the Incarnation. Traditionally the number for divinity is 3 (the Trinity) and the number associated with earth is 4 (the four corners of the earth). When the divinity of the Trinity is added to the earth, we find ourselves with seven and a savior.

What better way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ than in a family meal that not only reflects the coming of our Lord, but also foreshadows his resurrection meal with his apostles on the shores of Galilee?

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