Seven Fish Dishes for Your Holiday Feast

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American tradition that takes place on Christmas Eve. In Italy, it's called La Vigilia di Natale and stems from a long standing Roman Catholic decree forbidding meat consumption on the eve of a feast day, in this case, Christmas. 

Why seven fishes? No one is quite sure, but many believe it's a religious symbol. The number seven, after all, appears hundreds of times throughout the Bible and is significant in Catholicism, so it’s likely that the feast may represent the seven sacraments, the seven virtues or even the seven deadly sins. 

The tradition is believed to have started in southern Italy where there is abundant access to seafood. When southern Italians began immigrating to the United States in droves in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they brought their annual fish feast with them to what is now Little Italy in New York and beyond.

Some very traditional fish dishes are still served during the feast, such as eel, baccala (salt cod), scungilli (conch meat), and frutti di mare (shellfish), but most Italian American families celebrate by preparing seven of their family's favorite seafood recipes, with several side dishes and, of course, plenty of vino (wine)!

For some reason, when I was growing up, my family didn’t celebrate with a fish feast on Christmas eve, even though my grandparents came over from Naples in the early 1900s. My grandmother was an excellent cook, and I remember the Christmas day dinner table laden with heaping plates of antipasti, pasta with marinara sauce, sautéed vegetables (cheese and breadcrumb-stuffed mushrooms were my favorite!) Italian bread and all sorts of fried and roasted meats. But I have no recollection of eating fish the night before. The reason for this sad reality could be that when my family first arrived in America, they settled in Vermont where it wasn’t so easy to procure fresh seafood like it would have been had they gone to New York City or Boston. 

As a major fan of seafood, I decided it was time to start my own family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes tradition, and we’ve been celebrating it for over 30 years now. Admittedly, sometimes seven becomes six and the annual homemade triple chocolate pudding takes seventh place at the finish line. However, now that my three daughters are grown ups, the tradition has evolved into each of them preparing one dish, so I’m now in charge of only four!

The ceramic menu is updated each December 24th.

The evening’s grand finale is always A rich and creamy Triple Chocolate Pudding.

I don’t just stick with Italian classics either. I’ve made the tradition our own and borrow flavors and cooking techniques from all over the world that everyone in the family loves. I might start off with Cajun shrimp and moules marinières, and end with tuna alongside a wasabi mayonnaise, but the spirit of the fish-fueled evening hails from my Italian ancestors, who came from Campania—not far from the Tyrrhenian Sea—even if the tradition skipped a couple of generations.

Here are seven favorite fish dishes, along with wine pairing selections for your feast—be it on December 24th or any day of the year.

Buon Natale!

Louisiana Spicy Garlic and Lemon Shrimp

Sesame Crusted Tuna With Wasabi Mayonnaise (in photo)

Paella with Seafood and Chorizo 

Cod with Clams and Butter Beans

Lisa’s Lobster Rolls

Pasta with Scallops and Shrimp in a Tomato Mushroom Sauce

Sweet and Spicy Salmon (photo below)

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