It seems the only time "fishes” is an acceptable word is on Christmas Eve, when Italians honor the tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or as they say in the old country, “Esta dei Sette Pesci.” Seafood lovers go crazy for the fish bonanza, but how did it all start, and why?
Legend has it that the tradition started in southern regions like Naples and Sicily but is little known in northern Italy. Though many facts surrounding the feast are unknown, there are two definite truths: It’s about seafood and family.
When waves of immigrants made their way from Italy to America, they brought their cherished traditions with them too, the Feast of the Seven Fishes among them. Observing “Cena della Vigilia,” or the Christmas Eve dinner, started when Catholics fasted to anticipate the birth of the baby Jesus on Christmas Day. The fast would end when they received Holy Communion during Midnight Mass. Since meat cannot be eaten during the fast, Italians indulged in seven different types of fish or “fishes.”
There are several theories when it comes to the symbolism of seven: it took seven days for God to create the earth, the Bible says. Others believe that seven stands for the sacraments. For some families the number three is actually more important than seven, which represents the Three Wise Men and the Holy Trinity. Some families even go as far as having 13 fish varieties to represent the 12 apostles, with the final one being for Jesus. Others only have 11 fish, leaving out Jesus and Judas.
But no matter how many fish are eaten it’s all done in the spirit of the holiday and to refrain from eating meat and dairy products on the day before Jesus was born. Good thing the Bible doesn’t mention anything about seafood so Catholic Italian-Americans can indulge in fish like calamari (squid), baccala (cod), blue crabs, scallops, pupa (octopus), shrimp, clams, oysters, lobsters and much more. Mangia bene!