By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor
It’s time, Christmas Eve, when Italian Moms scurry around town, heading for the fish market, in search of fish to celebrate “La Festa dei Sette Pesci” or the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Can you believe how upset I was when someone (wanting to bust my chops) said, “What’s the big deal? It’s not something that’s celebrated all over Italy…”
“WHAT? YOU TELLING ME IT’S NOT AN ITALIAN THING?!”
“Calmati figlio che ti scoppi un intestino!” But, it’s true! Although the tradition originated in Italy, specifically in Sicily and Naples, it was not something celebrated throughout Italy, particularly not much north of Rome.
No one really seems to know exactly how the Feast of Fishes came about, or how many fish were on the table. It wasn’t always seven fish: Some Italian families prepared anywhere from three to thirteen varieties of fish, the numbers having special meanings.
For example, the seven fishes represented several possibilities: the creation of the world in seven days, the Seven Hills of Rome, the seven sacraments, seven sins, or even the Seven Virtues of Catholicism. Nine fishes at the table presumably represented the Holy Trinity times three. Eleven fish signified the Apostles minus Judas, whereas thirteen fish suggested the Twelve Apostles plus Jesus.
The Feast of Fishes became popular as Italian families migrated to other parts of the world. It was a big hit for the Italian American communities in America where, apparently, the serving of seven fish became the norm.
There are a variety of fish combinations available for the Italian American Christmas Eve meal. One lineup might be eel, baccalà, calamari, smelts, scungilli (a conch salad), a white fish and clams. However, as the years progressed, Moms adapted to the palate of the “new generation,” thus forcing menus to include “pesci merican” on the table. “Che vergogna!”
As a kid, there wasn’t much thought about a special Fish Feast Day. Yes, Christmas Eve was special, a wonderful family day. And, yes, there were fish for dinner (and more than the normal Friday). But myself and the other kids took it for granted that Christmas Eve was just another meatless day (we weren’t even sure how many fish lay on our table — who was counting?). But who can forget the wonderful aroma of fried, baked and sauced fish? “Era un aroma fantastico!”
The Feast of the Seven Fishes has passed from generation to generation and will continue. It is a magnificent Italian (and now Italian American) family tradition. We who have experienced it — “siamo stati fortunati.” But for those of you who have not, well — “veramente mi dispiace!”
Editor’s note: ISDA’s “12 Days” run from Dec. 14-Dec. 25 to promote Italian and Italian-American traditions, art, literature, stories and more. Per the Christian calendar, the actual 12 Days of Christmas are celebrated from Dec. 25 to Jan. 5.