What are the Origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes?

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is also known as the la vigilia. It is a celebration where Italian–Americans celebrate Christmas Eve with dishes of fish and other Italian seafood. The Feast of the Seven Fishes’ history dates back to when the Roman Catholics abstained from eating meat on the eve of any celebration like Christmas. Staunch Catholics avoided meat but only ate fish fried in oil.

Typical Traditions Associated With This Occasion

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is only common among the Americans. The Italians are not even aware of where the tradition began! All the 20 regions in North and South Italy have different culinary traditions for the fish dinner. 

For instance, the people in Piemonte celebrate with agnolotti, which is fresh pasta filled with meat; in Roma, they use minestra di Pesce, which is a fish-based soup. Pesce means fish in Italian. In Sardegna, Christmas Eve cannot be complete without malloreddus, a small semolina gnocchi. They serve it in a sauce together with tuna and fresh cherry tomatoes. 

Seven Typical Seafood Dishes Expected for ThisCelebration

Italians know how to celebrate Christmas Eve. According to their tradition, no meat is allowed, and that’s why they prepare seafood. It is not just one dish but seven dishes. Here are examples of the seven Italian fish dishes:

1. Rock Shrimp Pasta with Spicy Tomato Sauce

This is one of the easiest of the seven fish recipes. All you need to do is add peeled shrimp to a tomato sauce spiked with fennel and chiles. To get a flavourful pasta, finish it in the sauce.

2. Quick Shrimp Scampi

You can cook the shrimp with other ingredients or choose to cook it separately. When cooked separately, it cannot overcook, and you can whisk it in the butter to create a smooth, emulsified sauce. Serve it with orzo, rice, or your favorite grain. Top it with garlic sauce.

3. Easy Scallion-Salmon Dip

It is inspired by the classic combination of cream cheese and smoked salmon. The spread is ideal for slathering on a bagel or serving as a dip with bagel chips. This salmon dip recipe is an excellent way to use leftovers from maple salmon.

4. Brodetto di Pesce (Adriatic-Style Seafood Stew)

This is a hearty fish stew laden with hot pepper and served with toasted or grilled bread to mop up the sauce. To enjoy this dish, find fresh fish and pair it with your favorite Italian wine.

Seafood Stew, Feast‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌Seven‌ ‌Fishes‌ ‌-‌ ‌a‌ ‌Pescatarian’s‌ ‌Dream‌ ‌

5. Creamy Lemon Pasta with shrimp

Use yogurt as a substitute for cream in the sauce for this pasta recipe. Warm the yogurt and add some pasta-cooking water to make it thin. The lemon and basil brighten the pasta and also complement the shrimp.

6. Mussels with White Beans and Tomatoes

Add white beans to the mussels cooked in a -white wine sauce. It is a delicious meal that can be served with whole-grain crusty bread.

7. Swordfish with olives, capers, and tomatoes over polenta

This Italian fish dish involves simmering fish with olives, capers, basil, and tomatoes. You can serve the fish and sauce over creamy polenta.

Swordfish Steak, Feast of the Seven Fishes - a Pescatarian’s Dream - The Proud Italian

How to Cook a Feast of Seven Different Fish Dishes

There are no rules about how the Feast of the Seven Fishes should be prepared. But, different people do it differently. Some cook seven courses, while some do 12 to represent the 12 apostles. Others just put a bunch of seafood in a stew, and they are good to go. Here is a Feast of the Seven Fishes simple menu:

1. First Course: Something snacky

You are supposed to have seven courses. For the first course, it is advisable that you not make it too heavy. You can go for bacalao or salt cod with grilled bread. Alternatively, make lemony smoked trout dip or salmon rillettes. Just make sure you have a creamy dip with crunchy toasted bread.

2. Second Course: Light salad

Have a cold seafood salad. You can have grilled squid with greens and light, bright wine.

3. Third Course: Something grilled, seared and meaty

You can choose to have center-cut fish fillets like cod, bass, or salmon. Let them go with vegetables, legumes, or beans.

Feast of the Seven Fishes, Feast of the Seven Fishes - a Pescatarian’s Dream - The Proud Italian

4. Fourth Course: Pasta

You can pair your seafood with noodles and some pepper flavors. The heat will balance the salinity of the seafood together with the richness of the pasta.

5. Fifth Course: Seafood stew

To create your stew, use broth or fish stock. Add fresh herbs to lighten the dish. You can also use red wine but keep it light.

6. Sixth Course: Palate cleanser

For palate cleansers, you can have a citrusy course to separate the sweet and the savory. A grapefruit sorbetto (a frozen dessert mainly made of fruit juice or puree, sugar and water) is a good choice.

7. Seventh Course: Cookies, Cannoli, or a light dessert

You can have simple cookies for your dessert. Cannolis are also good, and they can be filled with ricotta cheese.

Cannoli, Feast of the Seven Fishes - a Pescatarian’s Dream - The Proud Italian

Seven Quickfire Facts about the Feast

Here are some interesting facts about the Feast:

1. It isn’t a Roman Catholic Feast day

The Feast of the Seven Fishes goes hand–in–hand with Roman Catholicism, but it’s not a religious celebration. On the Roman Catholic calendar, there is no official mention of the celebration.

2. Traditionally, 24th December was a day to avoid food

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, there were days that meat was to be avoided. The faithful were supposed to fast and reduce the intake of food. On the 24th of  December, they were supposed to fast during the day and break the fast in the evening. To avoid meat, they prepared pasta and seafood.

3.The tradition started in Southern Italy, but not the name

Enjoying a meatless Christmas Eve meal was common in Italy, but the feast’s origin is Southern Italian. This is an area surrounded by a coastline and hence known for seafood. Historically, it’s an impoverished place where people can only afford fish.

Feast of the Seven Fishes - a Pescatarian’s Dream - The Proud Italian

4.The unification of Italy Ultimately helped to bring the Feast to the US

In 1861, the different regions of the Italian peninsula came together into a single nation. People from Southern Italy moved to the United States of America between 1880-1924. As they immigrated, they transferred traditions like the Feast of the Seven Fishes to Americans. This made it a popular celebration among the Italian-Americans.

5. In Italy, they would have simply called the feast la vigilia

The feast’s current names include; la cena della vigilia, la vigilia di natale. Their origins come from the new world. Some people do not follow the “seven fishes” number. Others do nine or even 12.

6. It’s unclear what the “seven fishes” signify

It is not clear what the number seven represents. After all, it is used as a religious symbol since it appears in the bible hundreds of times.

7. The variety is mouth-watering

There is a varying selection of fish. Some people include 12 or 13 dishes that include mussels in spaghetti, sardines, scungilli (Italian snail), capellini (pasta in form of very thin strands) with tuna sauce, branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), sole, or shrimp scampi. You will enjoy it a lot!

Mussels in spaghetti, Feast of the Seven Fishes - a Pescatarian’s Dream - The Proud Italian

Summary

You are most likely to witness the Feast of the Seven Fishes when you visit Italy or America. If you cannot visit any of the two countries, try making the meals with the few suggestions mentioned in this article.