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The Feast of the Seven Fishes – Decoded

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We had an Italian guest on OpenOut and asking them about The Feast of the Seven Fishes got them bewildered. What we believed to be Italian, by hearsay, was something they had never heard.

A conversation and follow-up research made us realise so much about Italian food and culture that we had to put this not-so-short summary.

The Feast of Seven Fishes
Linguine with Clams at The Feast of Seven Fishes OpenOut

What is the Feast of Seven Fishes?

An Italian American celebration on Christmas Eve with dishes of fish and seafood.

When is it Celebrated?

Dec 24 — the vigil day — the vigil of the nativity of the lord, marked by fasting and abstinence of meat.

Origins of the Feast

The feast has it’s origins mostly in southern Italy.

Abstinence and Fasting

Abstinence is generally referred to as restraining from meat and fasting is referred to restricting food, often, one meal a day. Special days are dedicated to each in the Catholic liturgical calendar.

Why Christmas Eve?

Before the Liturgical reforms in 1960, December 24 was a special day of abstinence and fasting. Followers were generally allowed to break the fast towards the evening.

Why Fish?

Guess what happens when people are hungry and can not turn to meat?

Given the bountiful coastline in southern Italy, fish was an alternative to meat, so was seafood. The meal was even considered meagre due to seafood being very common.

Why Feast?

Soon meagre sea-food slowly turned into a never-ending feast of celebrations where families got together and things went overboard. Family and food are very close to the people of Italy.

Why Seven?

No specific story of origin but seven is considered symbolic. Seven sacraments, seven hills of Rome and according to one theory it represents completion, as shown in Genesis 2:2 — “By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”

Where is it Celebrated?

Surprisingly, it is unheard in Italy. While Italians (especially south of Italy) do observe vigilia, it is mostly Italian Americans who celebrate the feast in the current form. In fact, the roman catholic calendar does not feature this feast.

Is it Necessary to Have Seven Fishes?

Families have fish and a lot of fish. Seven, ten, four, twelve or as much as one wanted to! It’s easy to argue why one should eat with people and never alone. I made one right here. Feast of seven fishes does sound like a nice term coined by a restaurant or a food writer. But consider it as a sign for a variety of food.

South of Italy

Southern Italy, while closely knit in terms of culture and families, has historically suffered in terms of economic prosperity, especially after the two Sicilies united.

Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

Why Italian-Americans?

After the unification, the gap between north and south widened. In-between 1890 to 1920, 13 million Italians migrated out of Italy — the period of mass immigration. Out of them, around 4 million people moved to the United States since it was closer and cheaper to travel.

Around half of the Italians moved out of the U.S in 1920 as soon as they had enough savings. Another half stayed, either willingly or due to their inability to move out due to conditions presented by World War 1.

Culture

While the family is the cornerstone for Italians, south of Italy is considered to be extremely family-oriented and a closely-knit unit. A study amongst ethnic groups in America shows Italian Americans to have one of the lowest percentages of divorce, unemployment and incarcerations.

They were also among groups with the highest percentages of two-parent families, elderly family members still living at home and families who eat together on a regular basis.

This seems to have laid the foundation of the basis of contemporary Italian American culture.

Women

While the 1920s was the onset of expansion of women’s roles in America; prior to that Italian women chose home-based economic activities and ensured that the family was bound together, even while they had to adapt to new social and economic conditions in America.

La Vigilia to The Feast of Seven Fishes

The immigrants from the south of Italy with high priority to family and roots seemed to have carried La Vigilia to America and over the period it has become unique to Italian Americans.

It must have been celebrated in some form or the another from the 1920’s to the 60’s. Some staple Italian items started becoming common in American kitchens in the ’60s, although authentic ingredients were a bit of a struggle to get.

Popular Culture

The 1970s marked an important turn of a decade for Italian-Americans. For the first time, the descendants of the first generation Italian immigrants rose to the national average in terms of economic class and education.

The rise of the community reflected in popular culture, too. Godfather — the book, released in 1969 followed by the movie in 1972.

It introduced Italian words like consigliere and omerta to an English speaking language. With Godfather, Italians broke stereotypes, previously held, and a lot of immigrants, from other countries, must have found common ground with Italian Americans, too.

The 70’s and 80’s witnessed surging popularity of Italian food in America. Commercial establishments and media started to seek novelty, beyond ingredients and food and that’s when it seems to have stumbled on the feast. One of the first references to Feast of Seven Fishes was in Philadelphia Inquirer in 1983 and New York Time is 1987.

And there it is. The most plausible story of how La Vigilia travelled across the seas to the United States and over a period transformed into:

The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Article Notes

Feast of the Seven Fishes ; North-South Divide in Italy ; Italian Culture ; The Godfather Effect ; Feast of the Seven Fishes OpenOut ; New York Times Feast for the Seven Fishes 1987 ; Philadelphia Inquirer ; Liturgical Reforms

Another festival origin? Check out the Chinese New Year Origins.

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