“What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future. It is a fervent wish that every cup may overflow with blessings rich and eternal, and that every path may lead to peace.” ~ Agnes M Pharo
Christmas is such a magical time of year, and to the Italians, La Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve) is considered the most magical, and joyful night of the year. Italians share a rich culture, a love of food, along with strong religious, and family values. Holiday meals have always been an essential part of my multi-cultural heritage, and while every culture has its own traditions, I am not sure any other culture celebrates any tradition with more passion than the Italians. As far back as I can remember, and till this day, Christmas Eve has always been a special time for my family, and friends to gather together to celebrate, reminisce about the past, create memories, and share a delicious meal.
Growing up in a Hispanic and Italian-American family, it was the Italian-American culture that dominated our celebration with the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner, always to be known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, (Festa dei Sette Pesci). A meal without meat honoring the midnight birth of baby Jesus. It is by far, my favorite holiday of all, and if you come from an Italian-American family, you are more than likely familiar with the tradition, and its history. If not, allow me to take you on a small journey of its rich Italian history.
The exact origin of this tradition is somewhat arguable, however, history states it’s a custom that originated in Southern Italy, which spread throughout Italy, and around the world. Others believe it originated with the first Italian immigrants to the New World as a way to celebrate the bounty of the New World. Italians and Italian-Americans alike still celebrate this old-world custom that has been handed down from generation to generation, and in my home, it’s an Italian traditional feast to be remembered, and cherished for many years to come. Just ask anyone that has sat at my Christmas Eve table!
Some may ask why seven fishes? There are several religious philosophies that support the early stages of this symbolic feast but the most common belief is that the seven fishes represent the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. However, some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with not only seven fishes but twelve, and even thirteen different types of seafood dishes. While seven may represent the number of the Catholic sacraments, twelve is believed to represent the number of Apostles, and together with Jesus, made a table of thirteen, at the last supper. Whatever the number is, the meal is believed to bring buona fortuna (good fortune) in the New Year. For me, the tradition has always been about family, the abundance, and the variety, as much as being fortunate, and extremely blessed.
There are no rules as to which types of fish are served. However, some of the most popular that have been known to be eaten on this special holiday are prepared versions of calamari, baccalà (salted cod fish), oysters, scallops, eel, clams, and shrimp. The feast always begins with antipasto, and on a typical Napolitano table, this would include broccoli rabe, anchovies, vermicelli with garlic and oil, clams, fried eel, cheeses, eggplant caponata, followed by other fish dishes, and the dinner portion of the meal is typically wrapped up with a caponate di pesce (fish salad). The meal always ended with dessert, which included many mouthwatering, and different types of traditional dolci, such as Panettone, Struffoli, Zeppole, along with assorted fruit, and nuts. After the meal, many Italians attend the traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass. Some also may simply uncover the small baby Jesus figurine in the manger of their Presepe (Nativity scene), in their home, and pray. After midnight, many would celebrate the birth of Jesus with sparkling, and bubbly Spumante or Prosecco, and then open the presents. The moment every child anxiously waited for.
My childhood memories of Christmas Eve were always spent at my aunt’s house (my mother’s younger sister). I have such fond memories of those Christmas Eve’s spent in her home, and this is where it all began for me with learning how to cook the most treasured Christmas Eve traditional seafood dishes, from my Aunt Fanny (Philomena). She was a phenomenal cook, who spent days prepping, and preparing the feast, and everything that emerged from her stove or oven to the dining room table were wonderful dishes, and absolutely delicious. Her Christmas Eve table was always filled with seafood dishes such as, clams on the half shell, fried shrimp, shrimp cocktail, baccalà, fried flounder, stuffed calamari, and a sauce filled with all types fish, from shrimp, mussels, lobster, and calamari, which was served over linguine. I always remember, it was a given that a gallon of Gallo Burgundy wine, a bottle of cream soda was set between my Uncle John and Dad, who each Christmas would mix a tall glass of both with ice, and they would share a holiday drink, together.
Their home always felt warm, welcoming, along with being decorated beautifully, and the fireplace always added an extra touch of warmth to the atmosphere. Hours, prior to midnight, were spent eating, the adults playing cards while the children played, and who also waited with much anticipation for Aunt Fanny’s grandfather clock to make that chime sound as it struck the midnight hour, which always prompted a celebration, the opening of presents, and believe it or not, more eating. Magically, my aunt would appear from the kitchen with a tray of Italian delicacies, which now included cured meats, hams, roasted chicken, and more, and the eating began all over again. You never left Aunt Fanny’s and Uncle John’s house until well after midnight, and it was a given that my sisters and I, always fell fast asleep on the ride home, which was only from one side of Mt Vernon to the other.
It’s those Italian family traditions that I have learned from, which I continue, today, with hopes of them being passed on to my children, and grandchildren. In today’s economy, the traditional meal has become an expensive meal to put on the table, and some tend to believe it is a lot of work (and it is) but for me, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal is a given, no questions asked, and an important family gathering, in my home. I will make whatever sacrifices I need to ensure it is nothing less than the standards, and expectations that have been instilled in me since I was a child.
It takes days, and weeks to prepare for, from decorating, to baking, to cleaning fish, prepping, and preparing, along with cooking it all but with everything that goes into it, I wouldn’t change a thing. I have been hosting, and preparing the Feast of the Seven Fishes for as long as I can remember, and it’s a holiday where I am in my zone of complete peace, joy, bliss, creativity, and contentment. There is such an excitement that fills my heart, and it brings me such a sense of pride, love, and without a doubt, a day of unconditional giving to my family. I don’t believe there is one member of my family that doesn’t have a great anticipation, and appreciation of Nana’s Christmas Eve, and my Feast of the Seven Fishes meal.
While the menu has slightly changed over the years, for the most part, some dishes will just never change, and are an absolute giving that they with be on my Christmas Eve menu. First the table, and anyone who knows me, it changes every year, and it is most certainly a focal point, and a “wow” factor, as I am a firm believer presentation is everything, and it starts with your table. This year’s table will be spectacular, and you will have to wait, and see but here is a glimpse of last year’s table.
The meal begins with antipasto, and some staples are my famous Onion Focaccia Bread, and Pizza Bread, along with Broccoli Rabe, Eggplant Caponata, Little Neck Clams on the half shell, Shrimp Cocktail, Mini Crab Cakes, Mussels with White Wine and Garlic, and my famous Scungilli Salad, which a dear friend always says, “It is by far the best I ever had!” A Baccalà Salad or a baccalà stew with potatoes in a tomato sauce were always a staple on my table until the passing of both of my parents. It remained on my table as a symbolic remembrance of their presence for many years but always wound up being thrown away so I discontinued making it. Christmas Eve was their favorite holiday, and while their presence is sorely missed at my table, it’s the fond memories of Christmas Eve’s of the past that brings a sense of peace to my heart, and a smile to my face.
Onion Focaccia Bread
Little Neck Clams
Mini Crab Cakes
Mussels with White Wine and Garlic
Baccalà Stew with Potatoes and Calamata Olives
The second course is always Zuppe di Pesce, which can vary each year, however, for the most part, includes Shrimp, Calamari, and occasionally, Lobster, and is served over linguine. This Christmas Eve, it will include Shrimp, Little Neck Clams, Calamari, and Mussels.
Zuppe di Pesce over Linguine
The last course, is an array of several fish dishes, which includes Stuffed Calamari in a red sauce, Fried Filet of Grey Sole, Fried Shrimp, and steamed Alaskan King Crab Legs. However, as of last year, the Alaskan King Crab Legs have been removed, and are now a New Year’s Eve meal with Filet Mignon. For Christmas Eve, they have been replaced with Steamed Lobsters. Lastly, there are my ultimate Baked Clams, and rarely are there less than eighty of them on my table. Every year, there is a contest as to who can eat the most baked clams, and one of my sisters always wins, with my son coming in as a close second. Ironically, my sister is the smallest of all the women, and we are not quite sure where she puts all the food she consumes.
Fried Fillet of Grey Sole and Fried Shrimp
Alaskan King Crab Legs
The meal always ends with dessert, which includes trays of baked Christmas cookies, Struffoli, Zeppoles, Pizzelle (made by daughter in law), and it’s a given that a special surprise dessert is whipped up by Nana. I haven’t decided yet but it could be a Chocolate Cheesecake, Pumpkin Mousse Parfait, Chocolate Truffle Cups, or Mini Lemon Curd Meringue Pies. Whatever it is, it will be a surprise, and most certainly, delicious.
Cocoa Thumbprints and Apricot and Raspberry Thumbprints
Tarralles, Double Chocolate Chips and Chocolate Chips
Arugula, Chocolate Biscotti, Hazelnut and Anise Biscotti and Walnut Snowballs
The evening comes to an end, when you finally give in to that relentless question that has been asked by each of the six children, at least every 30 minutes or so since they arrived, “Is it time to open presents?” And the mayhem begins…wrapping paper, Christmas bags, tissue paper, and boxes are flying everywhere. The shrills, and gasps of excitement are heard throughout the house. No matter how hard you try, the excitement is something that you can’t control but the joy it brings to watch this in action is one that you never want to miss nor one that you will ever forget. While the excitement of presents is important to all of them, there isn’t a one of them, if you asked, that couldn’t tell you the true meaning of Christmas, including the youngest, my 4 year old nephews. It’s all about the celebration, the miracle, the blessings, and the birth of baby Jesus.
However you celebrate the miracles of the season, I hope each of you are surrounded by the love of your families and friends, and may the spirit of Christmas fill your heart with peace, joy, and hope for the New Year.
Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo!