Sometimes called The Vigil or La Viglia di Natale, the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes involves preparing and consuming different types of fish on the eve of Christmas.
The meal is prepared and eaten in anticipation and remembrance of the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. The significance of the fish is tied to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat or dairy products on Fridays and holy days. In some households, fish was prepared on Christmas Eve as a meal to pass the time while waiting to attend midnight Mass.
The actual origin of the feast is a mystery, though. It is believed that the tradition began in Southern Italy, but there are no accurate records to back this up.
There are many variations of the traditional feast. The Seven Fish Feast does not always include seven fish—cooks take liberty with the number and type of fish. The importance of the number seven is often linked to the seven sacraments but in some households, only three fish are served to symbolize the Holy Trinity.
Here in South Jersey, many Italian Americans continue the Seven Fish Feast as it was passed down to them from their parents and grandparents.
Maryanne Adams, from Cinnaminson, adopted this annual tradition in honor of her parents who have both passed away.
“We did not do this growing up, but I always liked the idea,” she said.
Spaghetti and clams is a mainstay on her Christmas Eve menu. She prepares this in memory of her mother who served spaghetti and clams every Christmas Eve.
They also fry up smelts in honor of her dad, "Big V."
“I’m not sure if anyone really likes it, but my dad loved it and we thought the name (smelts) was funny as kids,” Adams said.
The Adams Christmas Eve feast is not a formal affair, but more of an open house gathering of close friends and family serving a buffet style dinner.
“I have a lot of people come in at different times, so I could not do a sit down meal,” she said.
Jeannie Abt, a teacher at in Cinnaminson, hosts a formal sit-down Seven Fish Feast at her house each year. She used to travel to Brooklyn for dinner at her grandparents, and the feast has been elegant event for as long as she can remember.
“It has always been a fancy meal with lobster, calamari and smelts,” Abt said.
The Papi home in Cinnaminson hosts a fun and festive Seven Fish Feast and Michelle Reissman, a Delran mother of two, is looking forward to the special occasion at her parents' home.
“I think this is the meal the entire family waits for all year," she said. "No one ever misses it.”
Reissman's mom does most of the cooking but her dad is in charge of the bacala, which is commonly served in Italian homes on Christmas Eve. If you are of Italian descent, you may be familiar with this salt cod that needs to be soaked and prepared in a certain way.
The Papis also serve linguine with clams, shrimp, fried flounder, calamari, crab legs or cakes and salmon. They have seven fish for seven sacraments and for them, eating all seven brings luck in the New Year.
Danielle Schweid, a Cinnaminson mother of two, has historically served and eaten seven fish every year. This year she is hosting a small gathering for Christmas Eve dinner and is thinking about cutting back and serving less than seven fish dishes.
Schweid jokingly wondered about the bad luck. “Won’t I get presents on Christmas?”
Another Cinnaminson mom, Toni Baumhauer, doesn’t worry about the luck. “My mom just always cooked seven fish and now my sister does it, there’s no good or bad luck,” she said.
Fancy or formal, three or seven fish, shrimp or smelts, good luck or not, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a time of remembrance, tradition, family and food.