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Memories and traditions: Feast of the Seven Fishes

Sometimes being Italian is tricky: the overly boisterous and competitive family members, the gangsta stereotypes and the tendency for our genes to make us a little curvy (I’m slightly jealous of my slim Lithuanian friends). But there are far more perks to being Italian. The primary perk is the pride we have in our traditions.

One of my favorite traditions is about a week away. It happens every Christmas Eve and is known of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

For a long time, I didn’t really understand the significance of this tradition. I just knew it was AMAZING. What isn’t amazing about a meal with 7 main courses (…in retrospect, remember that curvy thing I mentioned? That’s what’s not so amazing)?

My Uncle Frank is in charge of this feast. He’s the real-life picture of the Italian-American image. Even though he’s lived practically his whole life in Pennsylvania, he’ll often pinch his fingers together and gesture, while speaking gibberish in an Italian accent. He’s heavily involved in the Catholic Church and would be besties with the Pope if he could. Italian families have a different structure than the American one, and in Italy, generations would stay under the same roof for life. Though my uncle has his own place, he’s adopted that Italian expectation of the younger generations staying with and caring for their elders. He is at my Nana’s house every night and has assumed the patriarchal position in the family. And as the patriarch, this is the meal he in charge of…it might even be a bigger deal than Thanksgiving.

For Italian Catholics, Christmas Eve is a vigil. So out of respect of the upcoming religious event, certain food respects are made. During Lent, which is like a giant vigil, meat is never consumed on Fridays. Of course, the Catholic Church made an exception for fish (the reasoning of which is a post in itself). Then, the Lenten fast is broken by the arrival of Easter day. Similarly, Christmas Eve is supposed to be a day of abstaining until the seven fishes. Then, you end the feast in time for Midnight Mass to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The seven types of fishes vary. We tend to have cod, scallops, oysters, calamari, shrimp, kale patties and my favorite, lobster. The lobster is special to me because my Uncle Frank would bring home live lobsters to boil. As really little children, we’d sit on the kitchen floor and play with the crustaceous critters crawling around us until it came closer to time for the meal. Looking back, I guess it is a little morbid that I’m so fond of this memory…c’est la vie. As for the reason behind the number seven, there’s actually a few. We usually do seven for the seven sacraments. Some say seven because that’s how many days it took God to make the world. In the Bible, perfection is seven – divinity is three, the Earth is four, so God on Earth is 7. That last one is kind of cool to think about considering this is the feast preceding God’s arrival on Earth as Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. Some families do other amounts of fish (nine for the trinity times 3, 13 for the apostles plus Jesus, or 11 for the apostles minus Judas).

With my uncle busy preparing the fish, the rest of us would gather around the table. Yelling over card games (Italians tend to cheat to win…even against family) and snacking on some antipasta. Then, one by one, fish after fish would arrive on the table. The cards were cleared and plates appeared. We are a large group, but we make room. And even crammed shoulder to shoulder, we’re always excited for this feast. Three fishes in, everyone would already be stuffed, but we’ll keep eating until the bursting point. You had to try all seven! By the time the last of the fish is servesd, I’m mentally praying for an oompa loompa to come roll me out of the room. No one could possibly eat another bite after a meal like that.

But then…

Cookies! And not just any cookies, but Italian ones. The fish plates are replaced with cookie trays and somehow, everyone finds more room for a genetti, anise cookie, sandstar or peanut butter kiss cookie (or two, or three…most likely four). The kids have their cookies with hot cocoa: the adults with coffee.

This meal is quite simply perfection. And my uncle is practically perfection for putting together such a complex feast year after year. So as a thank you and Christmas present this year, I got my uncle a graphic novel about an Italian-Amercian family and its Feast of the Seven Fishes. Although, when he starts laying out the assortment of food this Christmas Eve, I’m going to have a hard time waiting until Christmas Day to give him his gift.


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