I am a second generation Italian-American with parents from Southern Italy--my Mother's family was from Naples and my Dad was born in Molfetta, Puglia. Both are seaports and both cultures love fish. Both my parents loved fish... all sorts of fish. They'd eat them in cans, shells, with tentacles, with the heads and tails on, smelly or not smelly, dried or oily and bony. My Dad would go down to the docks on the Hudson River and catch eel, crab and whatever else he could catch in his traps, reel and line or drop line and bell screwed into the dock. He always ate what he caught and couldn't understand the concept of "catch and release". My Mother had a bad reaction to most shellfish, but that didn't stop her from eating them. Yes, both of my parents were obviously Catholic from long lineage of seaport dwellers.
The sea's bounty holds great significance for Catholics, with fish being the preferred food during times of fasting. You see, Jesus died for our sins on a Friday, and as was written as far back as the first century AD, Christians honored his sacrifice on Fridays by only eating fish. Here's the logic: a cold blooded creature doesn't sacrifice any warm blood for our meal (as Jesus sacrificed his own blood for us), so it was fair game during fasting. A warm blooded animal sacrifices his blood for our meal, so they are off limits on Fridays and during Lent and other religious holy days. When I was a kid, eating red meat on Friday was absolutely forbidden--a sin, the nuns told us. In more orthodox households, fasting might also exclude poultry and dairy.... yes, cheeses, too.
Our Friday meals were as simple as opening a can of tuna and having a cold summer salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and olives (my favorite) or with my Dad frying up some floured or breaded smelt (the whole fish) in olive oil and having it with some spaghetti and marinara. I loved the taste of smelt--hated the bones. Another favorite of mine was breaded and fried flounder or sole--no bones! Friday nights were fish, fish fish--until the 1960s when Pope Paul VI did away with Meatless Fridays.
(A side note here: one reason why pizza take-out became so popular in the States was because of all the Catholics ordering pizza for Friday dinners! After the rule was lifted, many Catholics started going our to burger joints on Fridays... Now, back to this fishy story... )
But come Christmas eve--in Italian, Vigilia di Natale--we'd see just about every kind of fishy thing you could pull up out of the Deep Blue. Mussels (cozze) cooked in tomato sauce, spaghetti with clams (molluschi), fried calamari, octopus, filet of sole (the safest fish for me to eat), baccalà (salted cod, soaked and de-salted overnight), pesce stocco (dried cod), raw clams (sorry, not a fan), crab, stuffed-baked clams, scallops and shrimp. I even remember a couple of years where they splurged and bought lobster tails. Then there was the ever-present eel... yes, that slimy, bottom dwelling creature that my Dad would cut into chunks and fry in olive oil. (When I caught them with Dad, I hated the way they would wrap around your arm as you tried to get them off the hook... yuck). Mom and Dad really loved that oily fish!
I know, that's more than seven fish... the menu would change up year to year. I'll be honest, eating each and every type of fish on the table was not my thing. I had some pretty traumatic episodes with fish bones in my childhood that scared me off fish for a couple of decades.
But Why Seven... and Why Fish?
I think I remember asking my Mom once, "Why seven fish?"... she didn't know. My Dad told me it had something to do with the seven days in the week, and God resting on Sunday. That didn't make much sense to me, but then again, none of the odd traditions did back then. I just wanted to eat the spaghetti and get to bed before Santa came to put my presents under the tree.
In Southern Italy, the Festa dei Vigilia meal might include seven, eight, nine or even twelve types of fish (one for each of the Apostles) depending on what village you lived in. As for seven fish... there can be many meanings and no one knows for sure which is the real reason. There are the seven sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Holy Eucharist (First Communion), Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders and Sacrament of the Sick. God took seven days to create everything that exists. Biblical scholars consider the number seven as a symbol of perfection. In the Bible, the number seven appears over 700 times--more than any other number.
Perhaps my Dad's theory about it being because of God resting on the seventh day has some merit, especially if you consider his finest "work" in creating the miracle of baby Jesus.
Now, the fish...
One of the more popular fish to have for La Vigilia is baccalà (salt cured and dried cod fish) or pesce stocco, the unsalted version. It's also one of the cheapest and most plentiful fish that you could keep for long periods of time--the stuff feels like a piece of wood when you buy it. Need a bit of protein? Break a piece off and soak in water and presto--nearly fresh fish! Even today in a specialty Italian shop, you will see large boxes filled with baccalà.
Italians emigrating from the South were coming to America for a reason--to escape poverty and hunger. If you really think about it, red meat would be a real treat for these people of the South. It would be a long time between pigs or cattle being slaughtered, so pork and beefsteak were rare indeed. Even bread and flour was being over-taxed during the late 1800s, making it difficult to even afford bread. So, in essence, this fish "feast" was actually fasting... no red blood. Just cold blooded fish.
Where my Dad was born, fish was right there for the taking. The sea is all around where my ancestors came from. My grandfather lived a couple of blocks from the old port of Molfetta. Fishing was easy. Fish could be free for anyone with a line and a hook or a net. Nets might catch a small school of smelts (sperlano), and any child can catch their fair share of crab (granchio). A drop line and a bell would surely catch an eel after a while. And in Molfetta, at the corner of the main harbor sits the Mercato del Pesce (Fish Market). I wanted to go inside when we visited Molfetta, but my son Lucas's nose told me "No Way, Dad!" I admit, the smell in the air was fairly... er... ripe that morning. Fish must have been fairly affordable, even for the poor back in my Grandfather's day.
Vigilia di Natale translates as the Vigil of The Birthing--waiting for Jesus to be born at midnight on Christmas Eve. It is also known by other names, depending on which part of Southern Italy you are from: La Vagilia di Natale (Vigil of the Nativity), Cenone (Great Supper), Cena della Vigilia di Natale (Supper of the Vigil of the Nativity), and Festa dei Sette Pesci (the Festival of Seven Fish).
This feast is not only an Italian-American event (as some think), but is celebrated by many Italian descendants around the world as well as Italian natives. Oddly, once you get north of Rome you hardly hear of La Vigilia. But in Southern Italy and here in Italian-American homes, it's a meal planned long before Christmas Eve, with Nonnas, Moms, Aunts and sisters breading the fish, calamari and shrimp and putting on large pots of pasta and marinara. And all this is done as early as possible so everyone can eat, celebrate, discuss, argue and of course, get ready for Midnight Mass...
In our little household, "We Three" have trimmed down the fish choices to perhaps three kinds--representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit... and for Lucas, Lisa and me. Only for us, we eat after our Parrish's 5pm Christmas Eve Mass services.
Traditions are worth keeping, aren't they? And even if you don't keep all of them or your traditions have evolved into a mere shadow of the traditions of your ancestors, they are still valid and worthy of passing along to your children. When learning about tradizioni del passato (past traditions), we learn more about ourselves and where we came from... and perhaps where our family is headed...
Buon Natale, tutti!
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