What is the Feast of the Seven Fishes?

This Christmas Eve seafood feast is an Italian American tradition that dates back to an immigration wave in the 1900s.

An episode aptly titled “Fishes” from Hulu’s breakout series The Bear explores complex family dynamics against the backdrop of an Italian American tradition: The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Throughout the Season 2 episode, no one seems able to adequately explain its history. Characters attempt to contextualize the origins of the meal, with explanations ranging from “it’s tradition… the seven fishes” to “it’s a chance to be together and to take care of each other and to eat together, and there’s seven fishes, which means you have to make seven entirely different dishes, seven entirely different ways.” A discerning viewer will note the circular reasoning.  

By episode’s end, the audience might leave with unanswered questions. Namely: What is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and where did it originate?

Italian origins

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a dear tradition to many Italian Americans who enjoy (at least) seven different seafood dishes on Christmas Eve. You might find labor-intensive preparations of bacallà (salted cod fish), calamari fritti with lemon and marinara sauce, stuffed escarole, fried smelt, scungilli (conch) in a chilled seafood salad, and stuffed clams oreganata.

You won’t hear about “festa dei sette pesci” in Italy though, says Michael Di Giovine, associate professor of anthropology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and author of Edible Identities. In Italy, the holiday is simply “la vigilia,” “the eve” of Christmas. And fish is really only eaten in Southern Italy on the holiday.

This is because the feast has evolved to be uniquely Italian American over the past hundred years. 

At the turn of the 19th century, Italian immigration exploded, numbering 300,000 in the 1880s, jumping to 2 million by 1900. As Italian immigrants moved away from extended family and their children grew and married Americans, the Feast of the Seven Fishes evolved from la vigilia into something much more extravagant. Di Giovine says the feast was a way to differentiate themselves, a marker of identity. It also became a tradition to strengthen bonds with both family present and ancestors past.

Today, there are as many interpretations of the feast as there are participants, Di Giovine says.

Why fish—and why are there seven?

A vast majority of Italian immigrants to the United States were from rural Southern Italy at the turn of the 19th century. When the country was unified in 1861, they had new freedoms from a weakened aristocracy. They came to America because there were jobs (from building railroads to skyscrapers) and mobility. Friends and family found success and brought their loved ones to the U.S.

Some say fish was chosen for the Feast because it was plentiful for impoverished families in Southern Italy. Others say the sea represented Italian Americans’ connection between their old and new homes. Still others say fish was served simply because it’s seen as an aphrodisiac.

Though many families no longer associate the feast with Catholic tradition, there’s likely a religious explanation for the seafood. The first Christians used fish iconography to denote membership. In one biblical tale, Jesus procures a large catch of fish, and promises his disciples an abundance of followers when he commands them to be “fishers of men.” To this day, the Pope wears the “ring of the fisherman.”

Seven is also a holy figure: it’s the number of sacraments and deadly sins. In the Bible, Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of people with seven loaves and fishes. “Consumed in multiples of seven, then, fish may be a deeply ingrained symbol of sanctifying and revivifying a plentiful group, and of promising continued abundance for posterity,” Di Giovine writes in a 2010 paper on the subject.

Tradition is always evolving

Italian culture is very regional, with small communities specializing in certain foods. North and Central Italy didn’t eat fish on Christmas Eve. The rush of immigrants at the turn of the 19th century were from the South, which has Spanish influences on the language and food. Fish, olive oil, vinegar, beans, tomatoes and fried foods like pizza fritta (pizza pockets) and zeppoles (donuts) are foods from the Italian South (notably not pasta). 

In the 1900s, anti-Italian sentiment was high and Italians from different regions were lumped together by outsiders. Eventually, traditions also became melded together to produce the current Americanized image of pan-Italian food that ranges from pizza to cannoli, which are both regional in Italy.

After World War II, Italians were accepted members of American society. They moved (with everyone else) to the suburbs, their kids went to school with those from other backgrounds, and TV was popularized, homogenizing the population’s taste. Language and religion are lost quickly in this situation, Di Giovine says, and food could be a way to separate yourself that you could choose when to use.

Writer and director Robert Tinnell made a comic in 2004 about his experience with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which he later made into a 2019 movie. Growing up in North Central West Virginia, he fondly remembers his great grandmother organizing the Feast. After she died, his grandfather and other men in the family took over. That particular masculine domesticity is something that the first Italian immigrants would have also performed out of necessity: men came to America first, without their wives and daughters.

However, knowledge about where to shop, when to prepare, how to cook, the history behind the meal, and family traditions quickly became the responsibility of mothers to pass down to their daughters, Di Giovine says. They are also likely the ones who have the ultimate say in making changes to recipes. Over time, families often tweak the menu to make things easier, cheaper, more abundant, and more accommodating of dietary restrictions.

“We’re not precious. I do a couple things that would have been on her table,” Tinnell says, referring to his great grandmother. “But then my wife loves seeking out new things. A few years ago, we picked up oysters and set them up outside over open flames; we roasted them in the shells. My family never did that. But I wouldn't trade the time that I spend with my father-in-law, my brothers, to all the kids—it's a new thing. And that's what's important here… that togetherness and that shared experience.”

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