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Feast of the 7 Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians

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The Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve commemorates the wait for the birth of baby Jesus./Linda Erickson The Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve commemorates the wait for the birth of baby Jesus./Linda Erickson
The Yule Blog, Dec. 24
1 day left until Christmas

Italians like to eat. So it’s no surprise that for many of us, holiday traditions center on what dishes will make their way to the table.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve is an Italian-American tradition that usually involves seven different types of seafood during a rather long meal on Christmas Eve.


The feast generally features seven kinds of seafood or more. The feast generally features seven kinds of seafood or more.

The dinner has its roots in the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on Fridays and certain holy days as a type fasting.

The origin of the term Feast of the Seven Fishes, or “Festa dei Sette Pesci,” is much debated, and some families put the number of seafood dishes at nine or even 12 or 13, but seven seems to be the one that is most popular.

According to Americanfoodroots.com, some people maintain that the number represents the seven sacraments or the number of days it took God to create the universe. For others, the custom is to serve nine types of fish signifying the Holy Trinity times three, and still others put the number at 13, for the 12 apostles and Jesus.

The fasting feast commemorates the wait for the birth of the baby Jesus – the Vigilia di Natale.

I’m a sucker for Christmas traditions – and seafood. So Christmas Eve is my favorite part of Christmas.

With my family, the tradition goes back at least a generation. My dad remembers his grandmother cooking eel, smelts, cod and other traditional fishes the night before Christmas.

I remember going to my great-grandmother’s one year for the feast, probably when I was around 5. I’m not sure why, but I remember disliking the ordeal, most likely because the idea of eating smelts still grosses me out.

My father said our family dropped tradition for a few years after my great-grandmother died, but picked it up again not too many years ago. At that time, my youngest cousin was a very picky eater, so the traditional menu has been adapted; we no longer serve eel or smelts.


Often the Christmas Eve feast starts with shrimp cocktail. Often the Christmas Eve feast starts with shrimp cocktail.  

The meal normally kicks off with shrimp cocktail, then leads to linguine with clams or mussels, clams casino, baccala salad, fried shrimp, scallops, flounder and salmon.

Everyone normally contributes something to the meal, with my Uncle Anthony and Aunt Julie heading up a lot of the main courses. My grandmother always handles the clams casino, and my Aunt Diane the baccala salad, which is salted cod, capers and olives dressed in olive oil.

My mom also always makes her stuffed mushrooms, which are a favorite at Thanksgiving and Christmas – so much so that when she asked my cousin Dominic what he wanted for Christmas last year, he said he wanted a whole tray of stuffed mushrooms to himself. We have a variety of side dishes too, like stuffed peppers, olives and cheese.

To me, Christmas is all about family. It’s about letting the people closest to you know how much you love them, be it with gifts, a kind act, or, in our case, food. Sharing a tradition is one of the best gifts you can give someone else, because without traditions, you don’t have stories, history or family recipes – all those things that go into making you who you are.

Happy holidays.


Mussels marinara is a traditional Christmas Eve dish./Linda Erickson Mussels marinara is a traditional Christmas Eve dish./Linda Erickson

Mussels Marinara

1/4 cup olive oil
2 dried red chili peppers
5 plump garlic cloves
1 large onion
5 cups canned tomatoes
1/4 cup sweet vermouth
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
1/4 cup dried parsley
3 pounds mussels

Saute chilies, garlic and onion in oil. Add tomatoes, vermouth, basil, oregano, salt and pepper and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add mussels and increase heat to high. Cook and steam until mussels open. Remove any unopened mussels.

Serve alone or over linguini.

The Yule Blog is a day-to-day countdown to Christmas featuring a new story each day. Click the links below to read other stories in the series.

Nov. 29: Best shopping apps put you where the buys are.

Nov. 30: Small Business Saturday gives independent shops their turn to shine.

Dec. 1: Before there was 'Elf,' there was 'The Santaland Diaries.'

Dec. 2: Historic Smithville has plenty of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to go around

Dec. 3: Earth-friendly gifts help preserve the world's green assets.

Dec. 4: Great gift ideas for the cook

Dec. 5: Let Cape May kindle your Christmas spirit

Dec. 6: The worst and the weirdest Christmas films

Dec. 7: How to take the perfect holiday portrait

Dec. 8: Will South Jersey have a White Christmas in 2013?

Dec. 9: Don't risk a home fire this winter

Dec. 10: In the kitchen with grandma: How to make 6-layer Neapolitan cookies

Dec. 11: 12 (relatively) new songs for Christmas

Dec. 12: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 1

Dec. 13: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 2

Dec. 14: How to make Razzleberry Dressing

Dec. 15: Last-minute make-it gift: Peppermint Patty Martini

Dec. 16: Dennisville Christmas House Tour connects past and present

Dec. 17: Snow day survival guide

Dec. 18: Best all-time Christmas songs

Dec. 19: 5 handy gifts for the home baker

Dec. 20: Cookie swaps sweeten the holidays if you can avoid the jams

Dec. 21: When will Santa get here? Track his flight Christmas Eve with NORAD

DEc. 22: Presents for pets - and pet lovers

Dec. 23: Best children's books get to the heart of Christmas

Dec. 24: Feast of the 7 Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians

Dec. 25: People all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus


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