While families all over the U.S. get cozy in their festive pajamas, sip hot chocolate and set out cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve, some also celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Known as “La Vigilia” in Italy, the feast is quite literally that: a grand meal serving a slew of seafood. The culinary tradition is observed by Italian families, particularly those with roots tied back to Southern Italy.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition rich with symbolism. The number seven represents the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church or the seven days of Creation. In these predominantly Catholic regions, Christmas Eve was a day of abstinence and fasting, where meat was avoided as a sign of penance and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. As Italian immigrants made their way to the U.S., they carried this traditional feast with them to preserve their cultural heritage and culinary practices. Over time, the Feast of the Seven Fishes evolved, merging with local customs and preferences and becoming a significant celebration in Italian-American communities, especially during Christmas.

The types of fish featured in the Feast of the Seven Fishes can vary based on personal preferences, regional influences and family traditions. Some common choices include baccalà (salted cod), calamari (squid), clams, mussels, shrimp, eel, anchovies, sardines and lobster. These fish are prepared in various ways, including fried, grilled, baked or served in pasta or stews, showcasing the culinary diversity of the Mediterranean.

Of course, the feast isn’t all about the food. The Christmastime tradition is a communal effort, bringing family and friends together. The meal is typically a multi-course extravaganza featuring intricately prepared dishes. It begins with appetizers like stuffed calamari or fried smelts, followed by pasta dishes incorporating various seafood. The main courses often feature larger baked or roasted fish and concludes with sweet treats such as struffoli (honey balls) and other traditional Italian desserts.

At its core, the Feast of the Seven Fishes represents a time of familial togetherness, which is central to Italian culture, and it remains a way for Italian Americans to honor their heritage and celebrate the holiday season with loved ones.