Traditions & Symbolism of the 7 Fish for Christmas Eve

by Ella
13 Desserts at Christmas Dinner

Christmas Eve is a time of profound significance for many around the world, marked by various customs and traditions. In particular, the feast known as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” holds a special place in the hearts of Italian, Italian-American, and other Mediterranean communities. This beloved tradition, often celebrated on December 24th, centers around a sumptuous meal featuring seven different fish and seafood dishes. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the history, symbolism, and culinary delights associated with the 7 fish for Christmas Eve, shedding light on this captivating and cherished holiday tradition.

The Origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, known as “La Vigilia” in Italian, is deeply rooted in the traditions of Catholicism, specifically the practice of abstaining from meat on certain religious holidays. The concept of a seafood-centric Christmas Eve feast was born out of this religious observance, which called for a meatless meal to commemorate the eve of the birth of Jesus.


Religious Significance: The Feast of the Seven Fishes is celebrated on December 24th, in honor of the birth of Jesus, and it coincides with the vigil of Christmas. It’s seen as a way to prepare both spiritually and gastronomically for the arrival of the Christ child.


Number Seven: The specific number of seven fish dishes has symbolic significance. Seven is a powerful number in Christianity, often associated with completeness and spiritual perfection.


Regional Variations: While the tradition is most closely associated with Italian and Italian-American communities, variations of it can be found in other Mediterranean and Catholic countries, such as Portugal and Spain.


The Symbolism of the Seven Fishes

Each of the seven fish dishes holds unique symbolism, often reflecting religious or cultural elements. Here’s a breakdown of the common dishes and their significance:

Baccalà (Salted Cod): Baccalà is a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, as the process of salting and drying the fish mirrors the preservation of his body. It is often served in a tomato and garlic sauce.

Calamari (Squid): The tentacles of the squid resemble the arms of the Virgin Mary, and the dish is a homage to her. Calamari is typically prepared in various ways, such as stuffed or in a rich tomato sauce.

Mussels: Mussels are believed to represent the purity of the Virgin Mary. They are commonly steamed in white wine, garlic, and herbs.

Clams: Clams are a symbol of wealth and prosperity. They can be found in dishes like linguine with white clam sauce, a classic Italian favorite.

Lobster: Lobster is considered a delicacy, representing a special treat for the holiday season. It is often served with pasta in a rich tomato sauce.

Shrimp: Shrimp symbolize life and fertility, and they are commonly served in various dishes, including shrimp scampi or shrimp cocktail.

Sardines: Sardines, often grilled or served in a tomato sauce, represent humility and simplicity, embodying the essence of the Christian faith.

Preparing the Feast of the Seven Fishes

The preparation of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a labor of love, often involving days of planning, shopping, and cooking. While the specific dishes may vary from one family to another, the core elements remain consistent.

Menu Planning: Start by creating a menu that includes a variety of fish and seafood dishes. It’s important to consider the preferences of your guests and the number of courses you plan to serve.

Shopping: Ensure you have access to fresh and high-quality seafood. Depending on your location, consider visiting a local fish market or seafood supplier.

Preparation: Many dishes can be prepared ahead of time, which can make the actual day of the feast less hectic. Clean, chop, and prepare ingredients as needed.

Cooking: On the day of the feast, follow your menu and cooking schedule. Many dishes can be prepared in advance and reheated just before serving.

Table Setting: Create an inviting and festive table setting that complements the occasion. Consider adding candles, Christmas decorations, and a beautiful tablecloth.

Enjoy the Feast: The Feast of the Seven Fishes is not only about the food but also about coming together with loved ones to celebrate. Enjoy the meal and the company of family and friends.

Contemporary Variations of the Feast

While the Feast of the Seven Fishes has deep historical roots, it has also evolved to reflect modern tastes and culinary trends. Today, some families incorporate non-traditional seafood dishes into their celebrations, and the number seven is sometimes flexible.

Creative Interpretations: Some modern renditions include inventive seafood dishes, such as ceviche or sushi, that may not have been part of the original tradition.

Seafood Alternatives: As dietary preferences and restrictions have become more prevalent, some people include vegetarian or vegan seafood alternatives in their feasts.

Flexibility in Numbers: While the tradition is named after the number seven, some families opt for fewer dishes, especially if they wish to simplify the preparation process.

International Influences: Given the diversity of cultures and cuisines, it’s not uncommon to find influences from other countries incorporated into the celebration.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes Beyond Italian Culture

While the Feast of the Seven Fishes is most closely associated with Italian and Italian-American traditions, similar customs exist in other cultures. These traditions are united by their focus on seafood and the celebration of Christmas Eve. Here are a few examples:

Portuguese Bacalhau: The Portuguese have their own version of a Christmas Eve feast featuring bacalhau, or salted cod, prepared in various ways.

Spanish Nochebuena: In Spain, the Christmas Eve feast, known as Nochebuena, includes a wide array of dishes, often featuring seafood and traditional Spanish recipes.

Greek Paganism: In Greece, the custom of a Christmas Eve meal, known as “Nisteia,” focuses on fasting and refraining from meat. It includes dishes like fish, vegetables, and olives.

Croatian Badnjak: In Croatia, the Badnjak feast features a variety of seafood dishes, including fish and shellfish, served in honor of the Christmas Eve traditions.

Scandinavian Smörgåsbord: In Scandinavian countries, a Christmas Eve smörgåsbord may feature pickled herring, gravlax, and other seafood delicacies.

Hosting a Feast of the Seven Fishes

If you’re considering hosting a Feast of the Seven Fishes, here are some practical tips to ensure a memorable and enjoyable celebration:

Plan Ahead: Start planning well in advance, from menu selection to shopping for ingredients. This will help reduce stress and ensure everything is in order.

Diverse Dishes: Aim for a balanced variety of dishes, from appetizers to main courses and desserts. Include options for various dietary preferences.

Family Involvement: Enlist the help of family members and friends. Cooking together can make the experience more enjoyable and memorable.

Music and Decor: Create a festive ambiance with Christmas music, decorations, and holiday-themed tableware.

Be Mindful of Guests: Consider the preferences and dietary restrictions of your guests, and communicate in advance to ensure everyone can partake in the celebration.

Enjoy the Process: Remember that the Feast of the Seven Fishes is not just about the meal; it’s about coming together, sharing stories, and celebrating the holiday spirit.


The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a rich and cherished tradition that encompasses the beauty of Christmas Eve and the culinary heritage of Italian, Italian-American, and other Mediterranean cultures. It is a celebration of faith, family, and the joy of coming together over a sumptuous and symbolic feast. Whether you choose to honor the original tradition or put a modern twist on it, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a culinary journey that continues to bring people closer during the holiday season. So, as you prepare for your own Feast of the Seven Fishes, remember that it’s not just about the dishes but the love and togetherness they represent.



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