Each Christmas Eve, Italian families around the world celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes or La Viglia (The Vigil). Loved ones gather around a table full of delicious seafood dishes to remember the Vigilia di Natale, or the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.
Serving a meatless meal based around seafood for the Feast of the Seven Fishes finds its origins in the Roman Catholic Church. On certain days, including many holy days, Catholics would abstain from eating meat or dairy products and eat fish instead.
There are many theories behind the seven fishes served at La Vigilia celebrations. Many point to the number as commemorating the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Others suggest that the number seven is honoring the seven days of creation or the seven hills of Rome. Some Italian families celebrate La Vigilia with thirteen fish dishes to honor the thirteen apostles.
The title “Feast of the Seven Fishes” for the La Vigilia meal is most popular in the United States. Outside of the U.S., many Italian families simply call it La Vigilia and eat a variety of seafood dishes, not necessarily a specific number. However, most Italian families serve an odd number of fish dishes, believing that odd numbers bring good luck.
La Vigilia Today
Each Italian family puts their own twist on the dishes they serve for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Recipes and menus vary according to the family’s taste and what seafood is available to them.
For a modern twist on La Vigilia, try hosting an appetizer or tapas party made of seafood-based, one-bite dishes. You could also bring in flavors from other cultures, such as serving Asian based seafood dishes at your La Vigilia celebration.
Preparing for the Feast of the Seven Fishes is similar to preparing for any large family gathering.
1. Ask your fishmonger to clean the fish you select. Remember to devein shrimp and clean your mussels and clams.
2. Ask loved ones could bring their favorite seafood dish, a side dish, or a bottle of wine.
3. Try to divide the preparation work over three or four days leading up to your feast. Vegetables can be cleaned and processed, the table can be arranged, cold dishes can be assembled, and desserts can be baked in advance.
4. Avoid serving courses by laying out your feast as a buffet or serving it family style. Serve appetizers while your loved ones mingle and then serve soup. Serve the main course buffet or family style. Serve dessert from the kitchen.
5. Try not to serve dishes that all need to be served warm. Cold salads are a good accompaniment to your feast and do not require oven space.
6. The purpose of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is to celebrate the birth of Jesus with loved ones. Take time and enjoy your friends and family.
7. Instead of serving pasta with all of your fish dishes, put out a basket of toasted, chewy bread or platter of sliced polenta.
8. Select fresh, high-quality fish. If you live in the midwest, look for a fishmonger or grocery store that flies in fresh fish frequently. Fresh fish should smell like the sea, not “fishy”. Sometimes, frozen seafood is your best option.
9. Save time and stress by ordering dessert from your favorite local Italian bakery.
Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrations usually include some of these types of seafood: anchovies, clams, mussels, lobster, whiting, sardines, dried salt cod (baccala), smelts, eels, squid, octopus, and shrimp. Side dishes of kale or broccoli rabe, pastas, polenta, and freshly baked desserts are often served with this seafood feast.