The Feast of 7 Fishes is a popular Italian American Christmas tradition. This hours-long meal is held every year on Christmas Eve. Known primarily as a Catholic celebration, it is designed to break the Christmas Eve fast and allow people to abstain from other meats, like poultry and red meat, until Christmas Day.
In practice, the Feast of 7 Fishes is exactly what it sounds like: A big meal with seven distinct seafood dishes. While Italian Americans created the tradition, anyone can try it. Interested in cooking up your own Feast of 7 Fishes this year? Read on.
Where Does the Feast of 7 Fishes Come From?
Historians believe the Feast of 7 Fishes originated in Southern Italy. There, it is known as La Vigilia, or The Vigil. The celebration commemorates the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. Catholic parishioners abstained from certain meats during the high holidays. They could not eat animal fat. So, instead, observant Catholics would eat fish, typically fried in oil.
Interestingly, the term Feast of 7 Fishes did not originate in Italy itself. Its first-known mention was in a 1983 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Some say that the number seven may derive from the seven hills of Rome, or perhaps the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. However, there is no definitive agreement on its meaning.
In the United States, the Feast of 7 Fishes is a highly regional celebration. It is more popular in mid-Atlantic cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore than in Brooklyn. In some communities, serving 12 types of seafood is more common.
Example Feast of 7 Fishes Menu
While any seven seafoods will suffice, certain Italian dishes are more common than others. Traditional seafoods, including baccalà (dried and salted cod), octopus, clams, salmon, and eel, are common. An example Feast of 7 Fishes menu might include the following:
- Baccalà, especially in pastas or salads, but also fried and eaten with dipping sauce
- Baked casino, a clam “on the half shell” with bacon and breadcrumbs
- Octopus salad, usually with garlic, onion, olives, and lemon
- Lobsters, often stuffed and baked
- Fish balls made of cod and served in a tomato sauce
- Seafood pasta, like shrimp scampi or clam and anchovy linguine
- Oysters, either raw, baked, or grilled
Other popular seafoods include fried scallops, fried smelts, fried calamari, fried cod, seafood salad, shrimp cocktail, and fried eel. Basically: If it’s found in the sea, it qualifies for this feast.
How to Host a Feast of 7 Fishes
Hosting a Feast of 7 Fishes starts, obviously, with great seafood. Because there are so many pieces of the feast, many people choose to order frozen fish online and keep their ingredients frozen until it’s time to cook.
In many cases, buying frozen seafood online is the best way to ensure you have everything you need. Even if you live near a great seafood market, the fish must be purchased on or just before feast day. If there are other Italian Americans in your area, they might also have the same idea. There’s no worse feeling than planning out a huge meal and arriving at the market to see that everything you need is sold out.
If you want to host your own Christmas Eve feast, consider buying your crab, salmon, halibut, oysters, and caviar online. If you want to go all out, consider having live Maine lobsters delivered.
Typically, the seven or 12 fish dishes is enough to feed a family – and often enough to create leftovers for several days. Be mindful when storing leftovers. Different seafoods have different shelf lives. Mark all of your leftover containers with an estimated “Best By” date. In general, most seafood dishes won’t last more than a couple of days in the refrigerator.
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