Italian Christmas Eve: The Feast of Seven Fishes

Italian Christmas Eve: The Feast of Seven Fishes

The Feast of Seven Fishes has historical and religious origins that trace back to southern Italy. Many Roman Catholics traditionally avoid red meat on Christmas Eve, some avoiding food altogether and breaking their fast only after midnight mass.

As the name implies, the Italian meal consists of (at least) seven seafood dishes, although some families go overboard (pardon the pun), preparing many more. Examples of the types of dishes that might be found on the table surrounded by gathering loved ones include salted or baked cod, clams casino, mussels served with pasta (and sauce, of course), eel, anchovies, sardines, calamari, fried smelt, insalata de mare (seafood salad), and deep-fried just about anything that swims in the ocean.

The specific origin of the name “Feast of the Seven Fishes” remains up for debate. It’s New World origins harken back to the Old World and the immigration of southern Italians to U.S. East Coast cities such as New York and Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries after unification of their country led to political unrest and poverty. Many Italians outside of these cities and their suburbs may have never heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

In Southern Italy, with its plentiful coastline, La Vigilia remains a similar celebration of breaking the Christmas Eve fast with loved ones and with dishes prepared with the seafood abundant in that region (no number of dishes specified). It’s possible that the “Feast of the Seven Dishes” was originally a marketing tool, as the term seems to have first shown up in restaurant ads placed in the The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.   

The common ingredient among those keeping the tradition alive in both countries remains friends and family.

Linda and Rocco Maniscalco of Allentown literally wrote the book on the topic. Their “Italian Christmas Eve: The Feast of Seven Fishes” is available on Kindle and in print at C. Leslie Smith on Cedar Crest Blvd. in Allentown, Metropolitan Seafood in Lebanon, N.J., and through their the couple’s website at First penned in 2010, the cookbook (and more) has grown from 45 to 78 pages, with the most recent update in 2019.

Like many Italians who observe the tradition, Linda Maniscalco believes the “seven” refers to the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist,  penance, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders. She also referenced different interpretations and practices. “Some people do 12 fishes for the 12 apostles with the 13th being Jesus,” she said.

Maniscalco’s own origin story – that of her book – is fascinating.

It all started with a portrait of her great grandmother Christina that her grandfather Pasquale carried over from Italy in the late 1800s, settling in the Wilkes Barre area and eventually raising 11 children. “She wanted to come,” Linda Maniscalco said. “They were both going to go together and were saving for tickets, but the day they were about to leave she told him they only had enough money for one ticket and that he should go.” The family story continues that a tearful Pasquale ran into the house and retrieved a portrait of his mother, tucking it in a green blanket under his arm for the journey to America.

“He never saw her again.” When that portrait eventually found its way to Linda Maniscalco, it had seen better days. She eventually took it to Dan’s Camera City in Allentown to have the backing replaced, and that’s when the treasure trove of recipes from Nona Christina were discovered stuffed inside.

“They called me and said they found all these recipes. It was more like notes – nothing she did was very exact.” That’s when Maniscalco, who had already worked on a cookbook for her church, decided to write “Italian Christmas Eve: The Feast of the Seven Fishes.”

Along with ancestral recipes for fish dishes, appetizers, side dishes, and Italian holiday cookies, the book contains cocktail recipes contributed by Rocco Maniscalco and illustrations by Linda Maniscalco as well as comments and reflections from local and regional clergy. 

One of the Maniscalcos’ favorite recipes is their family’s own take on ciopinno, a seafood stew combining seven fishes in one pot and served with angel hair pasta and crusty bread. “It’s one of the last entrees in the book, and it’s an easy way to combine seven fishes all at once,” she said. “Guests will think you slaved over this. It’s the best way for me to do it – although mom still likes to have each individual fish.”

Maniscalco recalled her mother and her sisters getting together and baking so many Italian cookies for the Christmas Eve celebration that they’d go through 40 or 50 pounds of flower and fill the L-shaped sectional couch of her childhood living room with trays brimming with the sweet assortment.

She offered that the focus on food during the Christmas season is somewhat ironic, as Advent, the time leading up to the birth of Christ, was initially a time of fasting and preparation.

“It’s not supposed to be a feast – it turns into a feast but it’s supposed to be a fast. Leave it to the Italians.”

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