Feast of the Seven Fishes

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.

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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Feast of Seven Fishes Ideas from Other Food Blogs

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30 Comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. Meagan

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

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. Stephanova

    Lucky for me, my husband’s father is half Italian and a fantastic chef. For their family, the important part has always been that there be an odd number of fish dishes and that each one feature a different fruit of the sea. They also say it brings good luck for the upcoming year. Their tradition involves playing games on Christmas Eve and awarding strange prizes to the winners. I can’t wait for this year!

  7. Devin

    My mother and I started making the feast of 7 fishes about 4 years ago. My father had been asking for starting the tradition for a long time. He is of Italian descent from Long Island and his mother used to make this when he was young.

    We usually end up with 8 fish because we are never quite sure how to cook the baccala, this year we are going to try your stew. We use some combination of:
    1. Sea Bass
    2. Shrimp scampi
    3. Crab Cake
    4. Lobster Ravioli
    5. Calamari (either fried or stewed)
    6. Flounder Florentine
    7. Stuffed Clams
    8. Pan Seared Scallops
    9. Salmon
    10. Baccala

  8. Marya

    Isn’t it a catholic tradition? My family is Polish, and we always have 7 fish dishes on Xmas eve.

  9. Michael

    Wow it looks great. Was looking for something a little different for this Christmas and had been hearing of a few people eating this type of meal. Definitely going to try this out as part of the meal.

  10. Mike

    Thanks for the link to our “seven” fish feast, Hank! We’re doing it again this year – quickly running out of planning time…

  11. Lisa

    A Brooklyn Italian here with all four grandparents from Naples and we always had fish on Christmas Eve. What a nightmare as a child…octopus salad, scungilli salad. Too sophisticated for my little tastebuds but now I love it. My brothers and sisters and their families still carry on the tradition of a fishy Christmas Eve. Now I live on the other side of the ocean in France where the holiday tradition is foie gras which I eat to be polite to my in-laws…what a nightmare!

  12. pam

    I have fond memories of going to Aunt Rose and Uncle Frank in Brooklyn for Italian Christmas Eve featuring seven fishes. Always stuffed calimari, pan fried shrimp and I think I remember pan fried blow fish every now and then.

    LOVE fried blowfish! It’s such an East Coast thing, too. ~Hank

  13. Sally

    I think I should have been born Italian! It all sounds so good. The Today Show had a feature on the Feast of the Seven Fishes today. Between this post and that piece, I’m really craving fish.

  14. Dotty

    This is so funny because tonight I boiled my octopus for the octopus salad. My husband is Italian and I am Norwegian/German. We lived in Brooklyn and my mother-in-law always did the seven fishes. I loved it and followed it. I am now passing on the tradition to our children and they look for it. My husband is first generation Italian.

  15. Matthew Hyner

    Only got to experience it once unfortunatly as I’m sure I’d enjoy it more now. What I do remember of it was it was my first time having calimari and king crab legs both of which I now love.

    As for the eel…growing up on Long Island(Lawnd Giland) I shall never forget going out with my father, and brother in my uncles boat with a bunch of portuguese folks my uncle knew for eel when I was 7. To this day even after diving as much as I have in South Florida seeing all sorts of other eels cannot get the vision of those slimy black snakes out of my head as they writhed and squirmed all throughout the boat after I knocked them over …AGH!

    Ahh well, now I’m hungry for the other stuff :)

  16. lili

    I’m from Sweden, so I probably would never give up my Swedish Christmas Eve dinner (since in Sweden, we celebrate on the 24th) for my husband’s Italian heritage… It’s all about the meatballs, after all ;) However, we always try to incorporate the Italian 7-fish tradition at some point during the Holidays, and here is a tip for the anchovy part:
    Colatura di Alici di Cetara
    Not an anchovy, per se, but the most delicious essence of them. Order it online, or ask for it at your Italian grocer/importer. Drip over vegetables, use with pasta… Yummmmmm!!!!!!

  17. Becky

    I got gypped! I am Catholic, my whole family is Catholic and we never had all these yummy dishes on Christmas Eve. We had greasy fast food cheese pizza :( Although at the time I thought it was great since we NEVER had fast food. I am going to start the tradition of the feast of the 7 fishes.

  18. Rich

    That’s a great tradition! Being German, we have always celebrated what I suppose could be called ‘the Feast of Seven Beers.’ We’ve never really given it a name before, and there aren’t any stipulations, but in retrospect, everyone does seem to have at least seven beers …

  19. angela della pia

    Traditions should be the backbone of keeping family and friends close at hand, while all recall memories of holidays past with long lost loved ones and accepting change in the future. We too celebrate “the seven fishes”, however, putting a new twist on some old receipes and serving them on Christmas Eve with the entire family is simply delightful. After gorging ourselves, we rest and prepare for mid-night Mass. We wish everyone a peaceful Christmas, and a Healthy, happy New Year. “God Bless to you and yours, as He has mine.”

  20. Caroline

    I’m a New Jersey Italian and had not heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes until I was in my 20’s. My family’s from the Molise region, which is Southern but not really near the coasts. We did begin a tradition recently of having my grandmother’s shrimp and angel hair on Christmas Eve, which I suppose is in the same spirit.

  21. Kris

    Italian from a mostly-Italian town in Western Pennsylvania here. (My mother’s family is from Caserta, near Naples.) I was told that the tradition came from the fishing industry suffering many years ago, causing the Catholic Church to tell people to eat more fish, dressing it up in a parable about the loaves & fish or sacrifice.

    My family used to do all seven, but we’ve strayed from the eel and bacala these days because nobody is that crazy about it. We still do calamari (in red sauce), smelts, shrimp & crab though. There’s also sausage & meatballs in red sauce on the table on Christmas Eve, so I guess we’re kind of losing the whole ‘sacrifice’ concept, but it sure is good. :)

  22. bbum

    My wife comes from an Italian family and they introduced me to the awesome that is The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

    I wrote up and photographed our 2009 culinary adventures:

    http://www.friday.com/bbum/2009/12/25/feast-of-the-seven-fishes-2009/

  23. Lady Modesty

    Thanks for this information Hank! I married a Sicilian with the same traditions but I never knew why they had them. And let’s face it… I’m just too Irish to ask. ;-)

  24. Heather

    I live in Israel right now, and I just saw mention of this feast on a poster today. Here’s my take on the “seven fish” origin: there’s a place called Tabgha on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Tabgha means “seven springs.” This place attracts/ed fish because of the fresh water entering the lake, and is the traditional location of where Jesus called his disciples. Seven springs…seven fish? I’m glad to know a little more about it through your post.

  25. Miso-Happy

    Chinese weddings also have a similar tradition, all the food served is seafood (with the exception of the cake of course), but it’s also a symbol of wealth.

  26. ciaochowlinda

    This meal has always been part of our tradition too and this year is no different. I love your wonderful selections and recipes.

  27. Nancy G

    I’m Italiano and also hail from NJ and love to carry on the tradition. It isn’t Christmas Eve without the Feast of the Seven Fishes! This year I’m trying a new dish… Whiting Salad; prepared much like Bacala salad (cooked, cooled, dressed). Buon Natale.

  28. Judi

    My husband’s roots are staunch midwestern Presbyterian, but his family has always had oyster stew and shrimp on Christmas Eve. I never connected it with any other tradition, just thought it was an interesting (and delicious). Thanks for educating me about a great way to celebrate.

  29. hanashi

    WOW!!!
    A culinary holiday tradition my family and I can FULLY participate in!!! THANK YOU for sharing this.
    I was reared pescatarian (meaning the only meat I eat is fish/seafood; no fowl, red meat, pork, game, etc), and have grown accustomed to bringing my own non-traditional food, ‘making do or go hungry’ at holiday gatherings.

    I’m definitely going adopt this tradition now, THANK YOU!!!

  30. Paula - bell'alimento

    Feast of the Seven Fishes is one of my favorite meals. It’s a seafood lovers dream meal. The lead fish foto is phenomenal!Thanks so much for including my link. Happy New Year xoxo

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