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The Christmas Eve Meal Italian Style: The Feast of the Seven Fishes

This blog post was updated on October 25, 2018.

Many cultures around the world celebrate Christmas Eve with a special meal. Naturally the Italians are no exception. La Vigilia takes place across Italian households from the top of the boot to the bottom heel with something a little fishy. The Feast of the Seven Fishes occupies Italy’s Christmas Eve. The event centers around the idea of severing seven different kinds of fish for dinner. As families and friends gather around the world to celebrate a Christmas Eve meal, the Italian feast of fishes is a tradition any culture or people can get behind.

The History of La Vigilia: The origins of La Vigilia in Italy are largely linked to the south of the country. The tradition is believed to date back to ancient times in the country. Many peg the Feast of the Seven Fishes to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence from meat on the eve of holy days. And in true Italian fashion, the people of Italy came up with a way of masking a fast with a feast by serving up several courses in anticipation of the midnight hour for the celebration on Christmas Day.

The Seven Significance: Many have tried to peg the significance of the number seven for the feast. While there is no clear explanation of why the Italians believe in serving seven courses of seafood, some have a few answers. There are Italians who say the number seven represents the seven religious sacraments of the Catholic faith. Others suggest the meaning is much darker, pointing out the seven deadly sins. And some Italians contend that it is not the sacraments or even the seven deadly sins, but rather the significance is linked to the creation story of seven days needed to create life.

The Goal: While for many, La Vigilia seems like a great way to sample several dishes of fish, the overall goal in Italy is to bring friends and family together, all while enjoying delicious food. The Feast of the Seven Fishes acts as a celebration leading up to Christmas Day. The different regions of Italy all put their own spin on the occasion, but you can bet they all have at least seven fishes on the table. Many gatherings will also serve certain dishes at special times building up to Christmas Day.

The Seven or Several Fishes: As the Feast of the Seven Fishes in Italy varies from region to region, so too do the different fishes served. No two families will prepare the same seven fishes, but generally you will see eel, lobster, salted cod, clams, mussels, shrimp, anchovies, sardines and octopus throughout the many courses. Main dishes may include pasta and vegetables. Dessert concludes the meal, but luckily the sweets do not include any of the seven fishes.


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Photo: Joe Shlabotnik

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