So strong is this tradition that I can honestly say that in my lifetime I've never spent a Christmas Eve without a variety of fish dishes spread before me. This is a hallowed custom that is passed from one generation to another.
To begin with you must have seven fish selections on the table.
Why seven? Seven is a very important number. It stands for the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. The seven days of creation. In Biblical numerology, seven is a number of perfection.
And fish is the featured dish because Italians have customarily abstained from eating meat on Christmas Eve. In fact, I do believe that for a long time the Catholic church prohibited the eating of meat the day before Christmas, This is the Christmas vigil.
There is no set menu for this feast.
But here are some of the fishes that are traditionally used: calamari (squid); scungilli [skuhn-GEE-lee] (conch); baccala [bah-kah-LAH] (dry, salt cod); shrimp; clams, usually served with pasta; mussels; snapper, trout, tuna or salmon.
We have adapted this menu over the years and updated it somewhat.
So, our annual feast usually includes calamari, baccala, shrimp, crab cakes, tuna, smelts and salmon. The cod and shrimp are served in both cold and fried or sauteed varieties. Shrimp is served as a shrimp cocktail and as shrimp scampi. Crab is served as both breaded and fried crab balls and fresh, cold crab claws. The baccala is served fried and in a salad. The calamari is served baked and stuffed. The tuna is served with spaghetti in a red sauce. The smelts are fried and the salmon is broiled. In addition to all of this it is customary to serve fried cauliflower and Italian bitter greens.
Our feast is usually preceded by cocktails (that's where the cold shrimp and crab come in) with much chatter and anticipation.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes takes up the entire evening -- usually beginning with the preliminaries at around 5 or 6 PM and often continuing into the wee hours of the morning.
The bountiful array of food remains on the table for everyone to enjoy. Any guests who happen to arrive are also welcomed to partake.
Desserts include an assortment of rich cakes, pies and cookies as well as cannoli and espresso.
Our feast is more casual than it was in years past but fine china, linens and glassware are still used on the table and when I say "casual" I mean business casual. So, this is definitely not a night for jeans or sweat suits or any kind of athletic gear.
And since it's Italian, it's an evening of high drama. All emotions (and generations) are at play. So, it's grand opera one minute, a Broadway musical the next and then lots of rap, in no particular order. At any given moment several family members are competing for attention. It helps to have your wits about you.
To survive the evening, you also need to pace yourself.
It's fine (and expected) to eat more than you usually would -- even much more. But you must take your time. That the Italian Way -- to savor every moment.
It's best to taste a bit of everything, moving through the huge menu in a careful, measured manner. My favorites are the crab cakes, shrimp and tuna pasta. So, I have to be careful not to eat so much of those dishes lest I not have room for anything else.
If you do not partake of a bit of everything you're liable to offend your host.
Like I said, for Italian families this ritual feast is sacrosanct and emotions often run so high. Why? Because the meaning of the evening is all wrapped up with feelings, memories, loved ones (including those who have passed on) and our most cherished values. Consequently, one must drink in moderation.
In fact, if you feel an urge to lift your glass frequently make sure you're lifting a glass of water.
With all the fish on the table, you will need it.