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Christmas Eve Tradition: The Feast of the Seven Fishes

By Maria Vultaggio

The only time “fishes” is ever considered acceptable grammar is on Christmas Eve when Italians honor the tradition of The Feast of the Seven Fishes, or Esta dei Sette Pesci.

It is believed to have originally started in Southern Italy, in regions like Naples and Sicily. However, it is not acknowledged as a tradition in most parts of Italy.


As a result of immigration, the tradition has been carried over to America and transformed into an Italian-American feast that must consist of at least seven assorted fish or seafood dishes. Even though the feast is supposed to have seven different platters, some families celebrate with up to thirteen.

The feast is a commemoration of the wait for the midnight birth of baby Jesus.

The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve originates from the medieval Roman Catholic practice of abstinence. Roman Catholics were supposed to abstain from the consumption of meat or dairy products on Fridays and certain holy days. Since observant Catholics could not eat any kind of meat or dairy they would indulge in different types of fish, typically fried in oil.

The specific reason for the symbolism behind the number “seven” is not known but there are two main hypotheses.

One assumption is because there are seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church.

Another theory explains that the number seven represents a Catholic form of perfection. The Biblical number for divinity is three and the number for Earth is four. The sum of divinity and Earth equals seven which represents God on Earth, or the birth of baby Jesus.

The most famous dish that Southern Italians are known for is Baccala (salted cod fish). Celebrating with such a simple fish is attributed to the impoverished regions of Southern Italy.

Over the years fried smelts and calamari have also become staples of the “Seven Fishes” dinner. Most families usually include a mixture of anchovies, sardines, eel, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels and clams. Various types of pasta and vegetables are added to most dishes to give a deeper depth of flavor and savor to the fish and seafood.

This now famous Italian-American tradition is still popular today.

The following is a list of seven of my family’s favorite fish and seafood dishes for the feast, recipes included.

1. Baccalà Salad

2. Octopus Salad

3. Fried Calamari

4.  Fried Eel

5.  Baked Clams

6.  Shrimp Scampi

7.  Seafood Fra Diavolo

Even if you’re not an Italian-Amerian, The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a fun and tasty tradition to be apart of.

Merry Christmas!

More articles filed under Food,Neighborhood Eats


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