Many years ago, our family adopted the tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes for our Christmas Eve holiday celebration. It’s certainly changed over the years, but it’s still a fun family tradition that we love to do. If you’re wondering what food to make for Christmas Eve dinner, give it a try!
And yes… there really are seven types of seafood!
A way to keep the tradition alive
I want to pass on the best of our family culture, traditions and heritage. For the Italian side, this often means passing on the food and recipes.
Trying to live a healthy lifestyle doesn’t mean throwing food-centered traditions out the window. Far from it! Instead, I’ve modified meatball recipes, pasta recipes, and even Christmas cookie recipes to accommodate our allergies and dietary needs.
An Italian-American tradition was easy and fun to continue with our family. It is called “The Feast of the Seven Fishes” in the US, but simply “La Vigilia” (the vigil) in southern Italy. As the name suggests, this tradition literally involves cooking seven (or more) types of fish on Christmas Eve.
Feast of the Seven Fishes: It’s for Christmas Eve Dinner!
There is much debate about the historical origins of this tradition, although we continue it simply because of its association with family. Eating fish on Christmas Eve has its origins in the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays and certain holidays. Abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve would mean waiting for the arrival of the Christ Child on Christmas morning.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were many southern Italian immigrants to America (especially in New York). They brought with them the tradition of serving fish dishes on Christmas Eve. Many Italian-American families still continue this holiday tradition.
The number seven is also up for debate, as many families serve fewer types of fish (and some serve as many as 13!). Seven is probably the most common number because of its strong historical and cultural significance in many parts of Europe, including Italy. In biblical history, the number seven represents completeness and perfection. In Catholic teachings there are also seven sacraments and seven deadly sins.
Does it have to be fish?
Some people really stick to seven types of fish on their seafood feast. Others (like me) simply aim for seven different types of seafood.
NOTE: You don’t have to cook all the dishes at once to try this tradition! I certainly didn’t start doing all seven at first. Choose just one or two and you have a festive, meaningful and delicious Christmas Eve dinner.
Our Family’s Version of “La Vigilia”
It took me almost a decade to finally get into a good routine for this special Christmas Eve meal. As you can imagine, there can be a lot of prep work and cooking involved! Each year I added one dish until I reached the full seven.
Now, to make it even easier, I make a seafood stew that contains most (or all) of the seven fish. There are many different options, but here are our favorite dishes and ones that I often prepare for Christmas Eve dinner.
Starters Seafood dishes
Cooking so many dishes can easily become overwhelming and involve too much food. Small appetizers are a good way to honor this Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition without going overboard. Each of them can be served as an appetizer or as part of the main course.
Crab and Mussels Arancini
Arancini is a traditional Italian dish, but I added two types of seafood to go with this dish. The name means “little orange” and they are small fried balls of rice that look like an orange after they are cooked. They are traditionally filled with mozzarella cheese and meat, but I use seafood, herbs and peppers for a flavorful alternative.
Mussels in wine sauce
A dish that looks really fancy but couldn’t be easier to make. Since this dish has so many dishes, we only make 2-3 of them per person. Children think they are fun and enjoy helping them make them. I use this recipe and mix up the herbs and spices a little each year.
Mussels in brown butter
I love scallops and they are a perfect part of a holiday table. Our favorite way to make them is with a little browned butter, olive oil and fresh herbs. Since there are so many other dishes at this meal, we only make one per person. My recipe is very similar to this one (I just leave out the capers).
This simple appetizer couldn’t be easier to make. Boiled and then cooled shrimp are dipped in a spicy tomato sauce. If you don’t have a healthy pre-made cocktail sauce, try this homemade one. Primal Kitchen has an unsweetened ketchup that will work well in this recipe.
Skillet Bang Bang Shrimp with Sriracha Sauce
All the flavors of the famous bang-bang shrimp without the deep frying! I fry the shrimp in butter until cooked and serve with a sweet chili and sriracha sauce.
Canned sardines are another easy (and healthy) starter to make this dish. You can mash them in the can and serve them on crackers with a piece of cheese. Canned fish really cuts down on prep time for this dinner. Here are some more ideas on how to eat sardines.
Pasta dishes often accompany this seafood fat, but it’s not something we usually do.
If you want to cook some pasta for your meal, here are some options. Sometimes we’ll use gluten-free rice spaghetti for pasta, or I often make vegetarian spaghetti. Add some homemade marinara sauce and you’re in business! If you’re feeling spicy, try some fra diavolo sauce instead.
Baccalà – salted cod in butter and wine reduction
Baccalà is a traditional main dish for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Traditionally, this is made with real Baccalà cod, which is preserved in salt and dried. Before I moved south this was hard to find so I got creative.
I made my own version using fresh cod and salt in a butter and wine sauce. Here’s a classic Baccalà recipe if you want to make your own.
Soups, salads and side dishes
Since the dish is more complex, the sides are super simple tonight. I often just make a fresh salad and roast some broccoli. You can even make a seafood salad with this delicious Caesar salad. The dressing is made with salted anchovies and I like to top it with some sardines.
Biscuit with prawns
A family favorite recreated from a soup we had at a restaurant. This simple shrimp bisque is very easy to make and tastes amazing. Making this at Christmas always reminds me how good it is and to bring it back into the family meal rotation.
Over the years, our Christmas Eve dinner routine has changed a lot. Although I still make some of these meal recipes, I’ve simplified the process thanks to this soup. Traditionally known as cioppino, the seafood stew features hearty fillets of fish such as halibut and scallops. This is an easy way to pack most (or all) of the 7 types of seafood into one main dish.
You can also make something like this hearty seafood soup. I would use arrowroot powder instead of all purpose flour though.
Tips for Serving the Feast of the Seven Fishes
If you don’t count on a heavy seafood soup, there can be quite a few dishes to make at once. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to make most of them ahead of time. I usually prepare everything except the clams in advance. I carefully reheat the dishes, steam the clams, toss the salad and we’re done!
Another way to make a meal more festive is to have specialty wines on hand. Since discovering Dry Farm Wines, I also make sure I have some of their white wine to serve for a perfect pairing. Kids get some sparkling water with fruit in fancy glasses!
For dessert, I usually serve fresh fruit with a dollop of whipped cream on top. If you still want to indulge in dessert, here are some delicious dessert recipes to try.
Do you have any special Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner traditions?