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I learned early on that when you get married, you also marry your husband’s sports teams (at least with my guy… go Reds!). This extends to cultural traditions too, especially if he comes from a strong cultural background. That’s where one of our favorite Christmas traditions called “Feast of the Seven Fishes” finds its roots.
If you’re wondering what food to make for Christmas Eve dinner, give this a try! And yes … there really are seven fishes!
A Way to Keep Tradition Alive
My husband came from a large family of Italian descent on one side. He and all of his siblings identify as Italian, even though it is just part of their cultural history. Of course, we want to pass on the best of the culture, traditions, and heritage from each side of our family. For the Italian side, this often means passing on the food and recipes.
Trying to have a healthy lifestyle isn’t about throwing traditions centered around food out of the window. Far from it! Instead, I’ve modified meatball recipes, pasta recipes, and even biscotti recipes to fit our allergies and dietary needs.
One Sicilian-American tradition in particular was easy and fun to continue with our family. It is called “The Feast of the Seven Fishes” in the US but simply “La Vigilia,” (the vigil) in southern Italy. As the name suggests, this tradition literally involves making seven (or more) types of fish on Christmas Eve.
Feast of the Seven Fishes: It’s What’s for Christmas Eve Dinner!
There is much debate as to the historical origin of this tradition, though we continue it simply because of its connection to family. Eating fish on Christmas Eve traces back to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays as well as specific Holy Days. Abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve would have signified waiting and anticipation of of the Christ Child’s arrival on Christmas morning.
The number seven is also up for debate, as many families serve fewer types of fish (and some serve as many as 13 different fish varieties!). Seven is likely the most common number because of its strong historical and cultural significance in many parts of Europe, including Italy. In biblical history, the number seven represents completeness and perfection.
NOTE: You don’t have to make all of the dishes at once to try this tradition! I certainly didn’t start making all seven at the beginning. Pick just one or two and you’ve got a festive, meaningful, and delicious Christmas Eve meal.
Our Family’s Version of “La Vigilia“
It has taken me almost a decade to finally get into a good routine for this special Christmas Eve meal. As you can imagine, there is a lot of prep work and cooking involved! I’ve added a dish each year until I got to the full seven over the last few years. These are our favorite dishes and the ones I’ll be making this year for our Christmas Eve dinner:
Crab and Clam Arancini (Appetizer)
Arancini are a traditional Italian food, but I’ve added two types of seafood to make it fit with this meal. The name means “little orange” and they are small fried balls of rice that resemble an orange once cooked. They are traditionally filled with mozzarella cheese and meat, but I use seafood, herbs, and peppers for a flavorful alternative.
Mussels in Wine Sauce
A dish that seems really fancy but couldn’t be simpler to make. Since this meal has so many courses, we only make 2-3 of these per person. The kids think they are fun and enjoy helping make them. I use this recipe and mix up the herbs and spices a little each year.
A family favorite recreated from a soup we had in a restaurant. This simple shrimp bisque is really easy to make and has amazing flavor. Making this one at Christmas always reminds me how good it is and to put it back in the family meal rotation.
Baccalà- Salted Cod in Butter & Wine Reduction
Baccalà is a traditional main course for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Traditionally, this is made with true Baccalà cod that has been preserved in salt and dried. Since this can be hard to find in our area, I’ve made my own version using fresh cod and salt in a butter and wine sauce. I’ll share my recipe soon, but here is a classic Baccalà recipe if you are interested.
Scallops in Browned Butter
I love scallops and they are a perfect part of a holiday meal. Our favorite way to make them is with a little browned butter, olive oil, and fresh herbs. Since there are so many other dishes at this meal, we only make one per person. My recipe is very similar to this one (I leave out the capers) and I’ll share my version soon.
Skillet Bang Bang Shrimp with Sriracha Dipping Sauce
All the flavors of the famous bang-bang shrimp without the deep frying! I saute shrimp in butter until cooked and serve with a sweet chili and sriracha sauce. I’ll share my recipe soon, but this one also looks good.
Serving Tips and Side Dishes
Pasta dishes often accompany this seafood spread, but since the meal is more complex we keep it sides and dessert super simple on this night. I make a fresh salad, roast some broccoli, and serve fresh fruit with a little whipped cream for dessert.
This is quite a few meals to prepare at once, so I typically prepare everything except the scallops ahead of time. I gently reheat the dishes, sauté the scallops, toss the salad, and we’re ready to go!
Another way to make the meal more festive is to have some special wines on hand. Since I discovered Dry Farm Wines, I also make sure we have several bottles of their white wine to serve for a perfect pairing, along with some sparkling fruit-infused water in fancy glasses for the kids!
Do you have any special traditions for Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner? I would love to hear what your family does!
Discussion (9 Comments)
Going to try some of your recipes this year! Please post the Bang Bang Shrimp when possible ?? Merry Christmas!
Happy Holidays and thank you for this post!
Growing up in a big Italian family from Brooklyn was so much fun! Especially during the holidays when all the neighbors would have their doors open! No need to call, just come over!
The 7 fish tradition was always celebrated in my house. My Mom would say as long as it’s an uneven number for good luck that’s OK. One year my husband lost his job and we just had shrimp.
To this day, my nephew makes an octopus salad with 4 fish. You make it the day before and eat it cold. Then cooking 3 fish was easy to complete the 7 fish dinner.
Wishing you all the best and cheers to 2021!
Carolyn J Hughes
You brought back wonderful memories from my Brooklyn childhood. Merry Christmas!!!
Oh great to hear Carolyn and cheers to OUR Brooklyn memories! I just took a minute to sit down from all the prep work lol and saw your reply, thanks!
And thank you Wellnessmama for another year of great posts! Merry Christmas!
We’re Russian Orthodox, so growing up we always did the Holy Supper with 12 dishes, while reading the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. There’s a candle stuck in a loaf of bread, symbolizing Christ as the Bread of Life and the Light of the World. It feels so special and holy. One or two dishes are always fish, one or two are cabbage-y things, there’s potatoes, and one or two are pierogis. It helps that the symbolic-and-necessary honey, garlic, and salt all count as courses!
We’re celebrating Christmas on the road this year, and I’m just not up to figuring out grain-free potato-free vegan pierogis, so we’ll do a few key dishes that can be made in advance (sauerkraut, cabbage soup, roasted radishes) and then have some cod for a main course. I like the idea of adding one dish a year.
Just an fyi: The Feast of Seven Fish is an ancient Catholic tradition, not just Sicilian or European. It’s celebrated in all 22 sects of the Catholic Church, including those in the East. A similar tradition closes Lent before Pascha Vigil, too. My own paternal family is French, Polish and English, and they celebrate it, and always have.
The point of the Feast is a *perfect* end to preparatory fast of Advent, awaiting the birth of the King of Kings, so your accounting for the number seven is correct. The seven fish themselves allude to the Saviour Who will feed the multitudes; it’s a symbolic play on the gift of the Eucharist. Historically, the Feast is served *after* the Vigil Mass (around Midnight) of the Nativity.
Thanks for sharing! I just learned of this tradition and would be interested in possibly doing this next year. Do you cook everything ahead of time or cook as you go along? If you cook ahead, what is the best way to keep some of the fish dishes warm?
I cook ahead when I can and refrigerate until ready to reheat.
Thank You For sharing this post. My husband is from Sicily and we try to keep his family traditions alive here in the states. This is one of the meals we do at Christmas too.