Seven Fishes of Christmas Eve
It's difficult to precisely pin down the origins of the "seven fishes of Christmas Eve" that many Italian-Americans serve, but I will try.
I first heard of the tradition when invited to my wife's family's home some 20 odd yrs. ago, for Christmas Eve dinner. The purpose for meatless dishes was due to the fact that the night prior to a religious feast was considered a vigil. During this religious observance meat is usually not served. I didn't know why seven was so special and I think no one else in the family did either. It is one of those traditions done every year even though you don't know why it was ever done to begin with. The tradition was passed down from generation to generation, but somewhere along the way the meaning got left behind. What could the number seven truly mean?
As I searched for the answer I found out
that this tradition isn't one that you will find in all Italian households.
In fact it appears that this is
mainly a central and southern tradition and it is not upheld in the north.
Of the regions that partake in this tradition each seems to do things slightly
different. The biggest differences are the number of fish dishes prepared.
Some prepare nine, eleven, or thirteen. Whichever number you prepare there
is a meaning and reason for doing so.
The number seven seemed to have quite a few different meanings:
- The Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church -- baptism, penance, Holy Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and the sacrament of the sick.
- The seven sins of the world -- pride, envy, anger, gluttony, sloth, lust and greed.
- The seven days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.
- Some say it's the seven hills of Rome.
- Some say it's the seven winds of Italy.
- Some say the Seven Wonders of the World.
Most northern Italian people don't really know about this custom. It's from Naples on down, a southern Italian tradition.
Many Italian families will serve many more than seven fish -- up to 21 types of various preparations.
The number nine appears to represent the Holy Trinity times three, while the number eleven stands for the Apostles minus Judas, and conversely the number thirteen represents the 12 Apostles plus Jesus. I am sure these are not the only reasons for each number. As for the fixed number of dishes, Southern Italians are a very superstitious people (my wife included).
So if you showed up at our table for Christmas Eve Dinner, expect to find baccalà, baked shrimp, fried calamari, fried flounder, baked clams oreganata, baked stuffed lobster tails and crabmeat stuffed mushrooms. I've included links to the recipes for you to try if you like. Buona Natale!
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