Christmas Eve will find Italian-American families all over the country sitting down to enjoy one of the more enduring, though impenetrable traditions in their culture: the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It is a cultural as well as a culinary practice likely created by homesick immigrants in the late 19th or early 20th century as a model on “La Vigilia,” the Vigil.
The Vigil is a shortened version of Vigilia di Natale, a Southern Italy tradition of celebrating the end of the Catholic Advent season by waiting for the birth of Christ. The practice also incorporates the Roman Catholic fiat against meat on certain days and, in many households, a trip to Midnight Mass.
The menu and even the number of fish served varies from family to family based as much on tradition as which fishes are available and desirable. The longer a group of immigrants is in America, the more malleable its traditions might become.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes once was a penance meal, made with peasant food, but as wealth and region changed among Italian-Americans, so did the menu.
In broad terms, the number of fishes should at least be odd, because odd numbers are luckier than even numbers. Besides being a lucky number, the “seven” is variously credited to the number of Catholic sacraments, the number of hills around Rome or the number of days God rested after creation.The more traditional meals usually incorporate what were at one time peasant foods: eel, mussels, smelt, calamari, cod, whitefish and scungilli.
But preferences for things like shrimp and clams as well as the wider availability of seafood generally have altered some menus.
For Angela Ciccarelli Keith and her husband Bryan, Christmas Eve at their restaurant, Mio Fratello in Selbyville, is one of the most special nights of the year. Having grown up in the tradition and continuing it after their marriage, the couple spent their early years as restaurant owners making the meal for their family alone.
After taking dinner as a family they would open up the restaurant to people waiting for a nice Christmas Dinner out. In recent years, though, they adapted the Mio Fratello menu to accommodate growing interest in the tradition among non-Italians and Italian-Americans alike. In just a short time, their Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner has become a pretty exclusive Christmas Eve event.
“Our Christmas Eve seating starts booking up in November,” Keith said. “They know we fill up pretty fast.”
The Keith family dinner still is pretty traditional, including smelt, calamari, baccala (salted cod), shrimp, anchovies, mussels and clams and spaghetti. They have it following 4 p.m. Christmas Eve mass rather than before Midnight Mass and come straight to the restaurant from St. Luke’s. Often the earliest customers are many of their fellow parishioners who come for their own Christmas Eve dinners.
“A lot of people down here think of smelt as bait, so we serve things more people like,” she said. “They also think that it is all spaghetti, but there’s hardly any on the menu, it’s all fish.”
The menu includes seared rockfish, seafood bouillabaisse, clams casino, stuffed calamari, rockfish cakes, a chilled seafood salad and crab-imperial-stuffed flounder.
If you count the crab and the various ingredients in the bouillabaisse and seafood salad, that’s more than seven fishes but the number isn’t the point. The particular menu items are more about personal taste than tradition. The traditional part is something larger.
“My favorite part [of the Feast of the Seven Fishes] is just being with my family,” Keith said. “It’s also nice to explain to the customers what the tradition is all about.”
For her and her family, the tradition still is about abstaining from meat during “La Vigilia” (standing vigil for the Christ’s birth). But it also is about the meal and being together for it whether they’re having clams casino or anchovies.
Although it fills up fast, it isn’t too late to see if there is any space left. Click here to make reservations.