Aside from being one of the only times “fishes” is a proper term, the Feast of the Seven Fishes -- or “Esta dei Sette Pesci” as they say in the old country -- is one of the most delicious Italian-American traditions, at least for those who love seafood. Besides being utterly tasty, there is also a fun history behind the Christmas banquet.
Even though it’s known as an Italian tradition, it’s not well known in the northern part of the country. Apparently it started in Naples and Sicily. In fact, not too much is known about the origins of the tradition but there are two main things that ring true: It’s about family and seafood.
So here’s what else we know: When Italians immigrated to America, they brought their tradition. Catholic Italians abstain from eating meat on Christmas Eve, so instead they indulge in “frutta di mare,” or seafood.
Some of the popular dishes contain octopus (pupa), calamari (squid), baccala (cod), scallops, blue crab, eel, clams, scungilli (conch), shrimp, smelt, and many other species. The seafood bonanza is the result of the biblical admonition against eating meat and dairy products on Christmas Eve. That means no butter either.
Besides abstaining from meat and dairy until Midnight Mass, religion gets further involved in the tradition with the number of fish consumed. Some families stick with seven and others indulge in as many as 13!
Though seven is the popular number, it has numerous meanings. Seven could be a reference to the creation story, or could stand for the seven sacraments or the seven virtues of Christian theology. Some even say it’s a reminder of the seven deadly sins, the New York Times reported.
One thing is certain: Different families will serve different combinations. Those who have 13 types of seafood believe they are representing the 12 apostles and Jesus. Some will leave out Jesus and Judas and just serve 11 varieties. There are even families who don’t go overboard with the tradition and simply serve three, representing the Holy Trinity and the Three Wise Men.
No matter how many types of fish you eat, mangia bene tutti and Buona Natale!