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Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Feast of the Seven Fishes

This special feast was a tradition that my father’s father observed with his family before he married.  According to my informant, this was the traditional meal of Christmas Eve.  After going to church to attend the midnight Mass before Christmas Day, my grandfather’s family would come home and eat Seven Fishes Dinner, quite a generous meal, during the wee hours of Christmas morning.  As my mother has always aimed to have dinner on the table around six or seven o’clock, I found this quite shocking, but my informant added that they did not arrive home until around one in the morning to enjoy the feast.  This feast obviously included several varieties of seafood, not limited to just fish.  My informant recalled salt cod, shrimp, and calamari/squid, as examples of items my great grandfather ate on Christmas morning.

Annotation/additional comments:
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in an article on Dec. 22, 2005 (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05356/625983.stm), recognizes the Seven Fishes of Christmas Eve as an Italian tradition and describes a restaurant owning family’s variation of the feast.  Their meal includes “scrod florentine, breaded filets in a bed of spinach; anchovies olio, pasta cooked with oil, garlic and the salty fish; linguine with white clam sauce; fried calamari rings,” and “deep-fried smelts, decapitated and marinated in lemon.”  This is the meal they serve at home, not at the restaurant.  The family also serves the feast as a special at their restaurant.
In the article, the main chef adds that there are “many theories” regarding the meaning behind the Seven Fishes of Christmas Eve.  He claims, “It has always meant the Seven Sacraments,” adding that some families celebrate with twelve or even thirteen varieties of seafood, to represent the twelve disciples and Jesus.  He suggests that the arms of the squid may have symbolic significance (“how God reaches out to us”), and that “the eel was supposed to be the speed in which Jesus’ word travels through the world.”
Many changes in the feast have been made over the years in this family, including the removal of eel from the menu and of the heads from the fish, and obviously many changes have occurred in various communities since whenever this tradition began.  According to the newspaper article, this family also celebrates their feast after seven o’clock rather than midnight like my grandfather.  Regardless of the variations in religious symbolism and details of the menu, this traditional feast illustrates the role of food in uniting and defining a culture, in this case Italians or Italian Catholics.

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