Feast of the Seven Fishes

An Italian-American tradition for Christmas Eve, the Feast of the Seven Fishes features seven courses each with a different seafood.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

Ever heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes? Hank explains:

Growing up in New Jersey among so many Italians, I thought every Italian family celebrated Christmas Eve with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a tidal wave of seafood dishes each featuring a different fish or shellfish.

But as I grew up and met more Italians from other parts of the Old Country, I learned that the Feast is a very Southern Italian tradition. Regional or no, I love the idea of feasting on the ocean’s bounty as a warm up to the heavy roasts of Christmas Day.

New England Cioppino

Every family has its own menu, but there are a few dishes that almost always appear: Smoked eel was a big one when I lived on Long Island, as was stewed or fried baccala, salt cod.

Calamari or octopus was a constant, and crab or lobster was common as well. Some families served huge piles of fried smelt, others pasta with anchovies. West Coast Italians served up cioppino, a seafood stew that can often have seven fishes in one bowl.

Why seven? No one really knows. Some say it is for the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church, others say it symbolizes the church’s Seven Virtues: faith, hope, charity, temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice.

Feast of Seven Fishes Ideas from Simply Recipes

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Baked Stuffed Clam

Calamari Stewed with Tomatoes

Cioppino

Salt Cod Stew

Grilled Branzino with Rosemary Vinaigrette

Grilled Oysters

Pasta with Tuna and Capers

Shrimp Risotto

Boiled Lobster

Feast of Seven Fishes Ideas from Other Food Blogs

A Feast of the Seven Fishes Menu – from Menu in Progress

Crispy Fried Smelts – from Stephen Cooks

Linguini ai Frutti di Mare – from Bell’Alimento

Swordfish Baked in Tomato Sauce – from Well Fed

Sicilian Spaghetti with Anchovies – from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

If you make this recipe, snap a pic and hashtag it #simplyrecipes — We love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, & Twitter!

Hank Shaw

A former restaurant cook and journalist, Hank Shaw is the author of three wild game cookbooks as well as the James Beard Award-winning wild foods website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. His latest cookbook is Buck, Buck, Moose, a guide to working with venison. He hunts, fishes, forages and cooks near Sacramento, CA.

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Showing 4 of 31 Comments

  • lindsay

    Hank,

    I am also of Italian origin and from NJ. We have celebrated Christmas Eve with seven fishes for as long as I can remember. I always credited the “Seven Fish” to the five loaves of bread and the two fish (5+2=7) that Jesus had when he performed the miracle and fed the whole crowd. None of these explanations have been confirmed, just thought I’d share another point of view :)

    Happy Holidays!

  • Rosemary Hughes

    I never heard it called “seven fishes” until I was an adult. As a kid, we always ate fish on Christmas Eve, because the eve of the holy day was a day of abstinence from meat. Making it a feast turned the “sacrifice” of not eating meat into a celebration — obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit. My grandmoter was from Basilicata. We always had angel hair with tuna and anchovies in a red sauce, baccala fritters and fried smelts.

  • Meagan

    I’ve never heard of this! I need to eat more fish – alot of those recipes sound delicious!

  • Diane

    Thanks for bringing me home again. I live in AZ and love it here, but just reading your description of “seven fishes” made me feel I was back in NJ during my younger years surrounded by my Italian neighbors and my children’s Italian friends.

    We are of Scandinavian desent and although we didn’t officially eat “seven fishes” Christmas eve, it was our tradition to have smoked salmon, herring, shrimp and/or lobster tail, mussels and tuna.

    LOL! Ours, too! My mum’s adopted family is Swedish, so we always had our “Feast” as part of a smorgasbord! Small world. ~Hank

  • Dawn

    Hank, The feast of the 7 fishes is also a Christmas Eve Polish tradition! I don’t think it’s specific to Southern Italy.

    Wow, really? Good to know – it is not celebrated much in Northern Italy, and while eating fish on Christmas Eve is a widespread Christian tradition, I’d never heard that the Poles did the Seven Fish thing. Cool! ~Hank

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