The Feast of the Seven Fishes – an Italian-American Tradition, but is it Italian? 1

The Feast of the Seven Fishes – an Italian-American Tradition, but is it Italian?

Well, it depends on how you define Tradition and how you define Italian.  The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Christmas Tradition for many Italian-American households.  The idea is that on Christmas eve (Christmas day for some), the feasting table is laid with seven dishes that represent the bounty of the sea. The exact number seems to be contested and that, like the specific dishes that are served, seems to be family-specific.  Some families have seven and some families have 12 while other families use a different number of dishes. Many Italian-Americans have very specific and heart held beliefs about this event known as The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

A great article on the history of The Feast of Seven Fishes is by Amy Zavatto and can be located at

One of my favorite quotes from that article is:
“I think something is not authentic or real when people want to do it all perfect. If there’s anything food culture is not, it’s perfect. And Italians don’t give a shit about these rules—they’re the most anti-rule culture there is! Rules are for the French. The number seven doesn’t matter. The meal is a heartfelt, imbedded thing. You eat fish on Christmas Eve, and that’s it.”

From my research, it seems like The Feast of Seven Fishes is an American-Italian Tradition but not an Italian Tradition.  In Italy, you often find fish and no meat on the Christmas evening feasting table. It’s often refered to as the feast of the magro – no meat. This custom is directly from Christianity. The “event” of the Christmas evening meal is called Vigilia (a vigilia).  

Vigilia – (
1   Retain a person awake or asleep.
2   Lack of sleep or difficulty sleeping. insomnia.
3   Day immediately preceding the one that is festive for the Church. before.
4   Work or activity that takes place at night

In more agricultural times, a “vigilia” was the time that the family gathered together after work in the fields. They would often finish chores, feast, and tell stories as a way of teaching and passing on traditions.

In relation to Christmas and the Christmas evening meal, the Vigilia is the family feasting event where the family gathers, shares joy, stories, and traditions. The mean itself can be quite varied but due to the heavy church influence, meat abstained from and fish figured prominently.

Although the Italian-American Tradition of Christmas dinner known as The Feast of Seven Fishes” isn’t “native Italian”, you can see how it is strongly based on the traditions of the native Italian culture and practices.

Rather than arguing whether it is “authentically Italian”, Italian-Americans should be proud that we’ve held onto the heart of the traditions from our ancestral land and adapted them to our unique culture of being both Italian and American. Traditions that connect us to the continuity of the past are extremely important – as is making sure that the traditions are more than just handwaving. We should be proud that we’ve connected these traditions in a way that honors our ancestry and speaks to us as modern day Italian-Americans.

Whether you celebrate The Feast of the Seven Fishes, Vigilia, Christmas, Solstice, Sol Invictus, Yule, Festa della Befana (American Style) or some other holiday at this season, I say to you, “i migliori auguri”!

I’ll close with the last paragraph from the first article I references:
““The important thing is to maintain the tradition,” says DiPalo. “That’s what Christmas is—a way to celebrate family and invoke the memories of all the people that have passed on. It brings them back, and we’ll see them alongside us, those who used to make this dish the best, and who wouldn’t eat that one. To an Italian family—and an Italian-American family—what’s special takes place around the dinner table.””



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One thought on “The Feast of the Seven Fishes – an Italian-American Tradition, but is it Italian?

  • S. Magliocco

    This is right on, Vinny! You perfectly captured the essence of tradition and why it’s important as a *process,* rather than as an unchanging rite.

    One of the things people tend to do at holidays is to intensify symbols by using them multiple times. The Feast of the Seven Fishes represents a form of ritual intensification of the key symbol of the Vigiglia di Natale: fish. If serving fish in one form is good, then serving it in more forms is better. It calls attention to the meaning of the symbol — in this case, the Christian custom of eating lean before a major holy day. Of course, it also completely subverts the idea of eating lean — I mean, have you seen these feasts? So the tradition satisfies both the need to adhere to a Christian custom, and the need to have an abundance of food to celebrate the holiday.

    We’re Pagan, but at my house, the traditional Vigiglia feast is fish stew made with a variety of fish, or risotto alla pescatore — seafood risotto.