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Let’s Have a Little Christmas Fun with the Elusive “Feast of the Seven Fishes”

Is it a true Italian tradition or a bit of savvy marketing? I did an unscientific and humorous poll on Facebook to get some ideas from those who know….

by Pasquale Palumbo

The fried fish platter. Photo: Pixabay

The other day, while looking up different ideas for how to prepare some different Christmas meals, I started to see many recipes for The Feast of the Seven Fishes.  This got me to thinking: why is this such a prevalent item on Google when I, as a first generation Italian-American, have only recently had this notion come into my consciousness over the last few years?

Spaghetti with red clam sauce. Photo: Facebook

I did what anyone else would do; I asked the Social Media Hive mind.  I put the following thesis up on Facebook:

I’m going out on a limb here and saying that “The Feast of the Seven Fishes” is not a genuine thing. It was probably made up by a struggling fishmonger to move more varieties of the fish he sold. While I do not deny La Vigilia di Natale, which is no doubt an Italian/Italian-American traditional Christmas Eve seafood meal, this “Seven Fishes” thing seems to me, well, fishy.

I also added a small note for everyone to post their degree of Italian-ness; i.e. I wanted to know who was 1st generation, who was 2nd generation, and so forth.  In searching for answers, I wanted some authenticity; I really wasn’t going to accept an explanation from someone who didn’t have firsthand experience in an Italian-American household on Christmas Eve.

I was expecting to be bombarded with many comments saying that I was an anomaly and that Seven Fishes was always something celebrated in their homes.

Linguini with white clam sauce. Photo: Wikipedia

What I found was that the vast majority of the 1st generation IAs that responded were in total lockstep with me.  They all agreed that there was an abundance of fish at their Christmas Eve tables, but an abundance of volume, not necessarily variety.  Some also agreed that they too had only recently heard of the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.”

Others even went as far to say that it was “probably an American-Italian thing” or that the seven fish thing was made up by some clever fish market or uppity Italians/wannabes!” (i.e. clearly made up out of thin air).

My Irish friend believed in my conspiracy theory when he said, “Fishermen had one hell of a lobbyist group” to which one of my 2nd generation IA friends (a much older gentleman whose grandparents were Italian born in the 1800s) agreed by saying “it’s (definitely) the international fish cartel.” Even the Wiki entry was inconclusive, as the origin of this “tradition” is murky at best. I would not put it past some marketing executive to say “hey, those Italians are a tradition-heavy lot; why don’t we start a campaign to convince them that they’ve always eaten seven varieties of fish on Christmas Eve!”

Shrimp Salad. Photo: Pixabay

Let me be clear; if The Feast of the Seven Fishes is your tradition, I fully embrace that it is your tradition and that you should be proud to celebrate it.  Where it gets weird is when people automatically assume that every Italian American household will be eating seven types of fish when they sit down at Christmas Eve dinner. That smacks of stereotyping and I’ve written plenty about how I feel about that.

I’d like to leave you with a few of the more notable quotes so that you can enjoy them as much as I did.

  • My father was born in Italy too. We do eat fish on Christmas Eve but I’ve never heard of the “feast of seven fishes” until recent years.
  • Always had fish on Christmas Eve but don’t remember Seven Fishes until more recent years.
  • We did it when I was a kid. Never liked smelt because they smelled.
  • How about the Feast of Eleven fishes…. because that’s what I’m trying to pull off.
  • I would prefer a feast of Seven Pastas!
  • Did anyone mention that the church had a tax on fish?
  • I had a question about the seven saltwater fish when one’s hometown in Italy has an altitude of 3,000 feet with a man-made lake.

Regardless, I wrote this all in good fun.  Christmas shouldn’t be a time to argue about traditions, real or imagined.  It should be a time when we can all celebrate the gifts that life brings us. Buon Natale!

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