Sicilian Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve

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Many years ago our family adopted the tradition of the Feast of Seven Fishes for our Christmas Eve holiday feast. It’s certainly changed over the years, but it’s still a fun family tradition we love doing. If you’re wondering what food to make for Christmas Eve dinner, give this a try!

And yes … there really are seven kinds of seafood!

A Way to Keep Tradition Alive

I want to pass on the best of our family culture, traditions, and heritage. 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 Christmas cookie recipes to fit our allergies and dietary needs.

One Italian-American tradition in particular was easy and fun to continue with our family. It’s 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’s 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 and specific Holy Days. Abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve would have signified waiting in anticipation of the Christ Child’s arrival on Christmas morning.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, there were a lot of southern Italian immigrants to America (especially New York). They brought with them the tradition of serving fish dishes on Christmas Eve. Many Italian-American families still continue this holiday season tradition.

The number seven is also up for debate, as many families serve fewer types of fish (and some serve as many as 13!). 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. There are also seven sacraments and seven deadly sins in Catholic teachings.

Does it Have to Be Fish?

Some people really do stick to seven types of fish at their seafood feast. Others (like myself) just aim for seven different kinds of seafood.

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’s taken me almost a decade to finally get into a good routine for this special Christmas Eve meal. As you can imagine, there can be a lot of prep work and cooking involved! I added a dish each year until I got to the full seven.

Now to make it even easier I make a seafood stew that has most (or all) of the seven fishes in it. There are a lot of different options, but here are our favorite dishes and ones I’ve often made for Christmas Eve dinner.

Appetizer Seafood Dishes

Cooking so many dishes can easily get overwhelming and involve too much food. Small appetizers are a good way to honor this Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition without going overboard. Any of these could be served as an appetizer or as part of the main meal.

Crab and Clam Arancini

Arancini is 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’re small fried balls of rice that resemble an orange once cooked. They’re 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’re fun and enjoy helping make them. I use this recipe and mix up the herbs and spices a little each year.

Scallops in Browned Butter

I love scallops and they’re 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 just leave out the capers).

Shrimp Cocktail

This simple appetizer couldn’t be easier to prepare. Boiled and then cooled shrimp are dipped in a zesty, tomato-based sauce. If you don’t have a healthy premade cocktail sauce available, then try this homemade one. Primal Kitchen has an unsweetened ketchup that would work well in this recipe.

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.

Canned Fish

Canned sardines are another easy (and healthy) appetizer to whip up for this meal. You can mash them in the can and serve them on top of crackers with a slice of cheese. Canned fish really cuts down on the prep time for this dinner. Here are a few other ideas for how to eat sardines.

Main Dishes

Pasta dishes often accompany this seafood spread, but it’s not something we typically do.

If you want to cook some pasta for your meal, here are some options. Sometimes we’ll use gluten-free rice noodles for pasta, or I’ll often make veggie noodles. Add some homemade marinara sauce and you’re in business! If you’re feeling spicy, try some fra diavolo sauce instead.

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’s been preserved in salt and dried. Before I moved to the south this was hard to find so I got creative.

I’ve made my own version using fresh cod and salt in a butter and wine sauce. Here’s a classic Baccalà recipe if you want to make your own.

Soups, Salads, and Sides

Since the meal is more complex we keep the sides super simple on this night. I’ll often just make a fresh salad and roast some broccoli. You could even make a seafood salad with this tasty Caesar salad. The dressing is made with salty anchovies and I like to top it with some sardines.

Shrimp Bisque

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.

Seafood Stew

Over the years our Christmas Eve dinner routine has changed a lot. While I still make some of these recipes for the meal, I’ve simplified the process thanks to this soup. Traditionally known as cioppino, seafood stew features hearty fish fillets like halibut and shellfish. It’s an easy way to pack most (or all) of the 7 types of seafood into one main dish.

You can also make something like this hearty seafood chowder. I’d use arrowroot powder instead of the all-purpose flour though.

Feast of the Seven Fishes Serving Tips

If you’re not relying on a seafood heavy soup, there can be quite a few meals to prepare at once. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to do most of it ahead of time. I typically prepare everything except the scallops beforehand. 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 I have some of their white wine to serve for a perfect pairing. The kids get some sparkling fruit-infused water in fancy glasses!

For dessert I’ll usually just serve some fresh fruit with a little whipped cream on top. If you want to go all out on dessert though, here are some tasty dessert recipes to try.

Do you have any special traditions for Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner?


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Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


10 responses to “Sicilian Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve”

  1. Rachel Winker Avatar
    Rachel Winker

    Will you be posting the scallop and shrimp recipes when they’re ready? They sound amazing!!

  2. Kristina Avatar

    Going to try some of your recipes this year! Please post the Bang Bang Shrimp when possible ?? Merry Christmas!

  3. Linda Ellis Avatar
    Linda Ellis

    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!

    1. Carolyn J Hughes Avatar
      Carolyn J Hughes

      You brought back wonderful memories from my Brooklyn childhood. Merry Christmas!!!

      1. Linda Ellis Avatar
        Linda Ellis

        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!

  4. Brigid Avatar

    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.

  5. Miki Avatar

    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.

    Merry Christmas.

  6. Jennie Avatar

    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?

  7. Amber Avatar

    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.

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