Yo! Here we go again with this explanation of the feast of seven fishes. I do not claim to know the “official” explanation (if there is one) to the feast. This is what we remember about it. Grandpop Achille would say, “That was the way it has always been done and that was the way it was going to be done on that day … (PERIOD).”
Imagine it is late afternoon on Christmas Eve; the thousand and one things that have to be done for Christmas are completed. Do you still feel like there is something missing in this joyous season? I always do. It seems the religious aspects of Christmas are being lost to crass commercialism. Like it or not, Christmas is a religious holiday. Through the years, it has become a buying frenzy, with a never-ending list of items to get, and things to do. Christmas traditions have been colored green as in $$$, and the real spirit of this day is being lost.
The Italians and Italian American families realize it. We Italians are doing Christmas the Med-i-can way according to our means, but we have one tradition that nourishes the religious spirit as well as the body. It is called the Christmas Eve Fish Feast or the feast of seven fish.
This annual event is not as strictly structured as the Jewish Seder, nor does it have any rules of religious conduct or sanctions. It is simply a wonderful tradition that gives a little meaning to Christmas and Christianity.
On Christmas Eve evening, we eagerly awaited the final preparation of the seven-fish feast. It took a lot of cooking by the ladies to get everything to the table at the same time. Everyone pitched in and helped, as we were anxious to enjoy this feast.
As the name implies, there were seven courses of fish served. The type of fish and the manner of preparation varied, but I will try to explain the significance of the courses.
The first course was any type of shellfish. Only the poor ate them in the days of Christ. Christians in those times were the poor.
Baccalà is codfish and is the next course. Baccalà is filleted and salt-cured to preserve it, as there was no refrigeration in days of old. It was a common fish and a staple of all the people. Like baccalà, Christianity embraces the lives of all people.
Stockfish was served next. It is also codfish, but it is sun-dried, like the sun that bore down on the workers in Christ’s time. Christ also labored in the heat of the sun to bring his message to the world.
Squid or calamari is served next and its tentacles symbolize the extensive teaching of Christ. The eel is served next as it symbolizes the speed with which Christianity has spread throughout the world.
Whiting or merluzzo was an abundant fish. It represents the abundance of love that Christ had for all mankind.
Smelts are small fish and represent the fact the smallest and humblest of God’s creatures are still loved by Christ.
Also served in our home was broccoli rabe. These bitter greens remind us of the bitter times Christ endured in his lifetime.
These seven courses are served in many different recipes. Some are delicious and some are simply tasted, for they may not be one’s favorite food. In some homes they serve 13 fish courses, but seven or 13, the fish must be as fresh as possible and everyone must eat some of each dish. Zia Maria would say, “What-za-mad-der, you sick or some-a-thing? Eat some more fish!”
For the Med-i-cans, and anyone else that are curious and want to experience the feast, many good restaurants offer this specialty on Christmas Eve. Reservations are usually required as this is a very popular event.
This traditional Italian feast is a wonderful way to get the family and friends together and really “catch” the Christmas (and Christian) spirit. Not with a rod and reel, but with ties to our past, and a legacy to our future. So, as Zia Maria would say, “Mange!”