How do Italians celebrate Christmas and what is the food for the occasion? The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci), celebrated on Christmas Eve, also known as The Vigil (La Vigilia), is believed to have originated in Southern Italy. This celebration is a commemoration of the wait, Viglia di Natal for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.
|We always frame our dinner menu so everyone knows what is coming up next|
So why fish? Being predominantly a Catholic country, traditions and food are tied with the significance of the festivity. One of these, especially observed in Rome and in the South of Italy, is to eat fish on Christmas Eve. One reason is believed to date back to the medieval Roman Catholic tradition of fast and abstinence on Fridays, (the day in which Jesus Christ was crucified) and other specific holy days of the year, when meat or dairy products are banned from the table, because of their content of fat, which makes them rich types of food, therefore non proper for the occasion. Fish was considered a leaner food by the Catholics, typically cooked using olive oil instead of other fats. So why seven fishes? Seven is a symbolic number reported several times in the Bible, Christianity (and other religions as well), and can be related to the seven days of Creation, the seven Sacraments. There is also a "Thirteen Fish Dinner" tradition observed in some parts of Italy, twelve plus one type of fish for each of the twelve Christ's Apostles, considered "Fishers of Men" (ok...not for me...it’s hard enough to come up with seven fishes for one dinner). Years ago, after the long dinner, the desserts and the sparkling wine, everybody would go to the Midnight Mass to celebrate Baby Jesus birth. Then they would all return back home to open the presents.
No matter how many fish dishes you make, the important thing is fish being the main ingredient of each course of the dinner, which takes place in the late evening (our celebration begins at 4pm...you need that much time to just eat this many courses). We serve each course separately and in a planned sequence. On our menu each fish is numbered. All of this is done in a relaxed and festive atmosphere (this is why we prepare so many days in advance...so that we can appear relaxed), waiting for Midnight (ok...no one ever makes it until Midnight in our home...we have alot of young kids...and even more tired adults...10pm max). Gifts are opened on Christmas morning.
Here is our menu close up:
Christmas Eve Dinner 2010
Feast of the Seven Fishes “La Vigilia”
Antipasto and Formagio
Brick Oven Pizza
Shrimp Cocktail (Pesce #1)
Fried Calamari and Marinara Sauce (Pesce #2)
Smoked Salmon and Horseradish Cream with Capers and Dill (Pesce #3)
Clams Oreganato (Pesce #4)
Lobster Bisque (Pesce #5)
Mussels in White Wine with Garlic and Parsley (Pesce #6)
Filet of Sole Oreganato and Baked Flounder (Pesce #7)
Caesar Salad and Bread
Cakes, Cookies, Nuts
Coffee and Tea
Framing your menu is a simple but elegant way of letting your guests know what is to come next. With this many courses it's nice to let people know they should pace themselves. Do you celebrate the traditional seven fish dinner? Do you have other traditions for Christmas Eve? I'd love to hear.