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How to Celebrate La Festa dei Sette Pesce the Italian Way

La Viglia

For many families in Italy, particularly in the southern part of the country, Christmas Eve festivities revolve around a meal composed of an odd number of fish dishes – seven, nine, eleven or thirteen.

Fish is eaten on La Vigilia because for more than a thousand years, meat was forbidden to Roman Catholics during fasting periods. Christmas Eve is one of those periods, until the fast could be broken at Midnight Mass and Holy Communion could be taken.

Because many Americans of Italian descent have their roots in the Mezzogiorno, this practice, in modified form, has been carried into the present on our shores and harkens back to our roots in Italy.

The holy numbers retain their potency whether from faith or habit. In Italy, at least, deviation is not smiled upon. The number seven, for instance, recalls the Seven Sacraments. The number 11 is representative of the Twelve Apostles minus Judas, while the 13 stands for the Twelve plus Jesus. The meaning of nine is less clear.

This year, the Italian Tribune presents recipes as guideposts to what might be served on Christmas Eve.

Some other interesting traditions apply in the Italian culture. A child may be asked to eat the first bite to honor the Christ Child, for instance.

In many parts of Italy, the entire meal for La Vigilia is with white sauces with no tomatoes. One reason for this variation is that the red of the tomato impiously intrudes upon the virginal purity of the savior’s birth.

The serving order of dishes in the meal is also considered important. Therefore, one might be served shellfish first, crustaceans next, squid following, octopus, small fin fish, then large fin fish. This is roughly connected to an ascent of the spiritual ladder that corresponds to the “evolutionary” ladder. So, as one eats his or her way through the species, one moves closer to God.

Regardless of what fish is served, the entire is always introduced with pasta. Sometimes the pasta will have clams or other shellfish as the chief elements of the sauce.

Often as not, the pasta is served simply with olive oil and garlic and perhaps a bit of minced parsley. The farther south one travels in Italy, the more likely the aglio e olio will add anchovies, sardines, capers and a splash of walnut oil.

We are delighted to present seven recipes from our advertisers. If you do not want to prepare the Seven Fish Feast yourself, please give the restaurants a call and enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve dinner for you and your family.

Baccala Putanesca