Feast of the seven fishes: An Italian Christmas Eve tradition

Adam Jones | 20/12/2019
traditional Italian feast of the 7 fishes
Enjoy a traditional Italian feast of the 7 fishes.

There are many Italian Christmas traditions including the legend of La Befana, but have you ever heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes? This tradition connects back to the long-standing Italian tradition of vigilia, a day of fasting that ends with a meal that excludes meat and dairy. After a full day of fasting on Christmas Eve, imagine the vigil night of December 24 as an endless feast of fish and pasta to fill hungry bellies.

Where to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes in Italy

This remarkably holiday celebration goes by several different names: La Vigilia di Natale (Vigil of the Nativity), Cenone (great supper), Cena della Vigilia di Natale (the supper of the Vigil of the Nativity) or simply La Vigilia. As it is a Southern Italian tradition, we recommend celebrating no further north than Rome. Southern coastal cities are your best bet, as they have the largest and freshest selection of seafood available.

What are the 7 fishes of the Feast of the Seven Fishes?

Whether you’re celebrating Christmas in North America or Italy, you won’t find seven specific types of fish being served. Think if it more of a seafood celebration. 

This holiday dinner is intensely regional. What you find on the plate in one city may not be the same in the next. Typical "fishes" include baccalà  (salt cod), frutti di mare (shellfish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungilli (conch meat) and vongole (clams). Fried vegetables are also a popular accompaniment to the fish; expect fried artichokes, pickled vegetables, fried squash blossoms, and other treats. 

The celebration on the 24th typically includes a nativity scene and a trip to church for midnight mass. Traditionally, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is served in the early hours of the morning, after midnight mass. Then it’s time for dessert, which may include biscotti, panforte, pandoro and panettone. 

Different parts of Italy tend to favor different dishes. In Naples expect frittelle di baccalà (cod fritters). Spending Christmas in Rome? La pasta e broccoli in brodo di arzilla (pasta, broccoli & arzilla fish soup) is a favorite on the menu. Dining in 
Calabria will get you spaghetti con la mollica e le alici (spaghetti with anchovies & breadcrumbs). 

What is the reason for the Feast of the Seven Fishes?

The origin of the seven fishes is uncertain. At some point during Italian immigration to America, this general day of fasting involving vigilia adapted itself into the modern-day Feast of the Seven Fishes. There are a few different theories on why there are seven fishes; seven days for God to create the Earth (according to Catholic tradition), the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic church, and possibly the seven famous hills that surround the city of Rome. A rule of thumb — when in America refer to this celebration as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, when in Italy go with vigilia.

Why is the Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrated at Christmas?

Dinner on Christmas Eve was delicious, but what are we having for Christmas dinner? On Christmas Day Italian families gather for a huge meal, the most important get-together of the holidays. 

The dinner often starts with antipasti, as well as pasta with a walnut cream sauce. Expect a variety of entries, such as seafood salad, tuna, shrimp with cocktail sauce, and a variety of cured meats. Next comes the pasta course. The type of pasta served will depend on the region you're visiting or from. Tortellini in broth is a favorite for this course; other popular options are lasagna and pasticcio. 

Then it's time for the meat. This dinner will be a meat friendly affair — with mixed roast, roast beef or stuffed capon often on the menu. It will be a hearty spread with plenty to fill a large gathering. Be sure to save some room for desert, which includes panettone, pandoro bread, and nougat. The whole affair will have copious amounts of wine and spumante, a form of Italian champagne.

Whether you choose a wintry holiday up north, a milder climate in the south, or you’re celebrating with family in North America, an Italian Christmas celebration is a culinary delight to behold. While the food may seem like the main feature, the most important part is spending Christmas with those you love — cherished friends and family.