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How to Celebrate Feast of the Seven Fishes

If you’re a seafood lover, or just want to try something different this year, celebrate Christmas Eve with one of the most iconic Italian holiday traditions.
By Published Dec. 19, 2019

Meals during the holiday season are typically dominated by hearty meats and roasted birds, so seafood can be a refreshing option. And what better way to showcase seafood than with a Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Southern Italian (and Italian American) Christmas Eve custom that features at least seven different types of fish and shellfish.

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ORIGINS OF THE FEAST

Eating seafood on Christmas Eve comes from the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat before holy days. Historically, fish was considered magro (“thin” in Italian) and most suitable for the poor, whereas meat was a luxury enjoyed by the wealthy.

Though this tradition is celebrated all over Italy, its origins are in southern Italy where, along the coast, seafood was most bountiful. The custom was brought to United States likely between 1880 and 1924, when over 4 million Italians, primarily from southern Italy and Sicily, immigrated here. Today, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is as beloved by Italian Americans as it is by families in Italy. 

Some Italian cooks are completely unfamiliar with the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” That’s because, depending on where they grew up, the tradition might go by another name—La Vigilia (The Vigil), or simply, Christmas Eve dinner.

Despite the feast’s popularity, the origin of the number “seven” still remains a bit of a mystery. Some theories hold that it was derived from the seven sacraments. Others attribute the number to the seven cardinal virtues or to the seven days of the week. Today, some families set a different number all together—in some cases an ambitious 12 (possibly for the 12 apostles). In other households, there's less of an emphasis on the number of different types of fish served and more focus on the overall abundance of the meal, which is typically an almost unending feast, not only of seafood but of fried vegetables such as artichokes, potatoes, and squash blossoms.

Ultimately, whether you’re Italian, Italian American, or just a pesce lover, what’s truly important is that seafood is prepared, shared, and enjoyed on Christmas Eve with the people that you care about.

If you want to prepare your own feast of the fishes, the only rule is to skip the meat. Otherwise, anything goes. If you’re feeling ambitious, cook seven courses, or, if not, put lots of seafood into a single dish. There’s so much flexibility and the potential combinations are endless.

TIPS AND TECHNIQUES

Follow these links for advice on how to shop for, store, and prepare the fish and seafood you'll be serving at your feast:

STARTERS

Don’t feel like making a starter? No shame there. How about serving raw oysters with a zippy mignonette or a few fancy tins of sardines or tuna served charcuterie-style with flavored salts; mustard and red pepper-jelly; and crusty bread.

PASTA DISHES

MAIN DISHES

DESSERTS

You can’t skip dessert. Pick up some cannoli or serve sweets that can be made ahead and will satisfy without being too heavy, such as the ones below:

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.