Feast of the Seven Fishes: History Behind the Tradition

Updated June 18, 2021
Feast of the Seven Fishes

The Italian Christmas Eve tradition known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a beloved part of the holiday season for many Italian American households, as well as in some areas of Italy. This feast is centered on the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on holy days, and Italian Americans have put their own twist on it.

Where the Feast of the Seven Fishes Is Celebrated

While this tradition is seen strongly in many English-speaking countries where people of Italian descent now live as an Italian tradition, it is actually not seen in the majority of Italy. In fact, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is mainly celebrated in southern Italy and Sicily, and varies from area to area. While the most common variation of the tradition is to eat seven fish, some households in southern Italy actually eat nine, 10, or 12 fish instead.

Eating Fish on Christmas Eve

The eating of fish on Christmas Eve is a Catholic tradition. Catholics were expected to abstain from eating meat or products derived from animals such as butter or dairy on Fridays and holy days. Christmas Eve being one of the designated days on which to abstain, most good Catholics would eat fish, typically cooked in oil. In southern Italy and Sicily, fish is extremely abundant, which may explain why so much of it was added to Christmas Eve dinner. It is also worth noting that while it's called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the meal includes more than just fish. Side dishes and other accompaniments to the fish round out the meal.

Italian Catholics typically ate one of several different fish on this day, including:

  • Baccala
  • Cod fish balls
  • Fried smelts
  • Fried calamari
  • Marinated eel
  • Fried cod
  • Fried shrimp

Why Seven Fish?

Because the number of fish eaten on this day does vary from area to area (in fact, in Italy, this feast is mainly referred to as La Vigilia, or the vigil. The number part seems to be a North American addition), there is no exact meaning behind the number seven. It has been hypothesized, however, that the number refers to the fact that seven is "God's number." Another theory is that the number of fish corresponds to the number of days in a week - the time it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. Other theories include references to the seven sacraments and to the seven deadly sins.

Rather than serving seven fish, some households serve ten, to designate the stations of the cross. Nine fish refers to the holy trinity, multiplied by three. Serving 12 fish, however, typically refers to the number of Apostles, although some households serve 11 or 13 for the same reason. Other numbers may be used by families forging their own traditions or using whatever amounts of fish are available to feed a specific number of guests.

Christmas Eve Fish in the Rest of Italy

While only those in Southern Italy and Sicily celebrate Christmas Eve with a feast of seven fishes, there are other Italian traditions that have ties to the Feast of Seven Fishes.

Eaten in many parts of Italy on Christmas Eve is a dish called cenone, which is made of eel. Eel is regarded as a delicacy in Italy, and therefore a must be on every table for Christmas Eve, regardless of whether there are numerous other fish dishes or not.

Every Italian dinner table, regardless of how many types of fish there are, is decorated for the Christmas season. Italians take Christmas traditions seriously, and no Christmas Eve table is complete without candles, an Advent wreath, and desserts featuring chocolate.

Celebrate the Tradition

You don't have to be of Southern Italian descent to enjoy this tradition; this Christmas Eve, serve a feast of fishes to your family. No matter whether you serve seven, nine, 10, or 12, you'll be bringing this tradition into new generations.

Feast of the Seven Fishes: History Behind the Tradition