Catholic tradition has it that there is no meat on Christmas Eve. An Italian-American tradition is the serving of seven fish dishes (or twelve depending on where you are), the night before Christmas.
The day before Christmas, la Vigilia di Natale, also goes by the name ‘the feast of the seven fishes’ for Italian-American families.
In Catholic tradition, there is no meat on Christmas Eve (or the eve of any feast). Many families still follow the tradition of serving seven fish courses for the evening meal instead. Afterwards, there is midnight mass to celebrate the coming of Christ.
It is believed southern Italian families who emigrated to the United States took the tradition with them.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes may not be recognised across Italy. For example, families in Piedmont celebrate with agnolotti, fresh pasta filled with meat; in Rome, the tradition calls for minestra di pesce, fish-based soup. In Sardinia, Christmas Eve dinner without malloreddus, small semolina gnocchi usually served in a sauce with tuna and fresh cherry tomatoes, wouldn’t be Christmas Eve!
Why seven dishes?
There’s no absolute certainty around why seven dishes. In some villages you may be served twelve (one for each of the apostles). However, the most common theories are:
Seven sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Holy Eucharist (First Communion), Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders and Sacrament of the Sick. So, one fish dish for each of those.
Seven days in the week: God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.
Seven hills of Rome: this is a little tenuous if the traditions stems from the south.
The meal’s components may include some combination of anchovies, whiting, lobster, sardines, baccalà (dried salt cod), smelts, eels, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels and clams.
Time for family in Italy
Importantly, Christmas Eve is for the family. A time for everyone to come together, enjoy food and celebrate life and family.
After the midnight Mass at the local church, it’s time to brindare (make a toast) with a glass of spumante and indulge in a slice of panettone and/or pandoro.
Children will prepare a glass of milk, nuts and a slice of cake under the tree to thank Babbo Natale for the gifts.