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— by Leslie Gigliotti
Although Christmas is commonly viewed as a commercial holiday, for many families it is still a religious holiday steeped in tradition. This is especially true for the Italian-American population. In Italy, it is often said, Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you wish). One of the many family traditions, alongside decorating the tree and attending midnight mass, is preparing seven types of fish dishes for the Christmas Eve meal.
The tradition of the seven fishes prepared for meals on Christmas Eve lends itself to a Central and Southern Italian tradition and is not prevalent in the Northern region. Some argue that this may be due to Southerners being a bit more superstitious than their Northern counterparts. Of course, you don’t have to look too far for an explanation of why fish is an obvious choice on Christmas Eve: Catholic rules prohibit the consumption of meat on Christmas Eve.
But, like many traditions, the Christmas Eve fish dish has many explanations. There are several arguments provided as to why there are seven fishes consumed, rather than say, six, or even ten. Some reasons are overtly religious: seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; seven sins: pride, envy, anger, gluttony, sloth, lust and greed; seven sacraments of the Church: baptism, penance, Holy Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and sacrament of the sick; seven pilgrimage churches in Rome; and, finally, seven days for Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. Some are not religious and almost a bit coincidental: seven days in a week, seven hills in Rome, and seven wonders in the world. Added to the mystery, there may be even more than seven fish dishes served. Some people might serve nine, symbolizing the Holy Trinity squared. Some may serve 13, indicating the 12 apostles, plus Christ.
Even the types of seafood and their preparation are not standard. Some of the common seafood used is eel, anchovy, baccalà (salt cod), smelt and shrimp. However, it is possible to have clams, lobster, salmon and calamari (squid) served at the table. This is by no means an inclusive list because cooks vary the ways in which they prepare the meal.
Frutti di mare (seafood salad) is often seen as an antipasto and is possibly followed by pasta with clams, shrimp or eel. Various types of fried fish – such as calamari , shrimp or smelts – could be served along a seafood stew with baccalà as its base. There are no limitations as to how the dishes may be prepared.
Each family has its own individual preference of fish dishes for the Christmas Eve meal. The only common factor one will see at the dining table is an abundance of delicious food.
Check out the Recipe Section on this website for a wonderful way to serve calamari this Christmas Eve.