Christmas Fishes

Sarah grew up in a traditional Italian-American Catholic family. Traditionally, she knew that it was usual for Italian people to make many fish dishes on Christmas, as they are not supposed to eat meat during that time. As Sarah put it “hardcore like Biblical Christian Italians” do eleven fishes. She couldn’t remember the reasoning behind that. “Normal intense Italians” do seven fishes. But her family doesn’t do that anymore, sometimes they get up to five, but her mom now works full time and doesn’t have the time to make seven different fish dishes. When her grandmother was still in charge of Christmas dinners she made all seven. No matter how many were made, Sarah never ate any because she doesn’t like fish and prefers other Christmas dishes.

I believe that Sarah is mentioning her family’s interpretation of the “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” (in Italian “Festa dei setti pesce”), a tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve that arose from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from certain types of foods on the days surrounding certain holy days. While the tradition is of seven fishes (that would be what “Normal intense Italians” do according to Sarah) since the tradition came to America with Italian immigrants it has been known to have as many as thirteen different seafood dishes. The number seven has been speculated to represent the seventh day on which God rested from creating the Earth or simply because the number is the most repeated in the Bible.

For further discussion of the Feast of Seven Fishes in Italian-American culture, see: Penna, Joanna Della. “Italian American Holiday Traditions.” Italian America 2007: 6,7,29