7 Facts About the Feast of the Seven Fishes

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iStock/GMVozd

For Italian-Americans, the Feast of the Seven Fishes—a nostalgia-fueled, hours-long dinner consisting of at least seven different types of seafood—is the defining Christmas Eve tradition. Firmly rooted in Italy’s Roman Catholic background, the Festa dei Sette Pesci is a delectable blend of the sacred and secular, the old world and the new.

1. It is not a Roman Catholic feast day.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes may go hand-in-hand with Roman Catholicism, but it’s not a religious “feast day.” There is no such thing as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” in the Roman Catholic calendar. (In fact, in Roman Catholicism, a feast day has nothing to do with gorging yourself and everything to do with reflecting on and celebrating an important aspect of the faith, often the life of a saint.) The tradition’s name merely takes after the lay definition of feast: that is, there’s a lot of food on the table!

2. Traditionally, December 24 was a day to avoid food.

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, there are special days of abstinence (where followers are advised to avoid meat) and days of fasting (where followers are advised to reduce their food intake, usually to just one meal a day). Before reforms were made in the 1960s, December 24—what Roman Catholics call The Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord—was a day to fast and abstain, with worshippers generally allowed to break the fast in the evening. The Feast of the Seven Fishes, then, seems like an obvious solution to the circumstances: You have a big, hungry Catholic-Italian family that hasn’t touched food all day. None of them are allowed to eat meat. What else is there to do but prepare a giant evening meal of pasta and seafood?

3. The tradition began in Southern Italy, but not the name.

While the tradition of enjoying a large meatless Christmas Eve meal was (and remains) common across Italy—as well as many other Roman Catholic-dominated countries—the origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes has its roots in southern Italy. The area, which is surrounded by bountiful coastline, has been known for its seafood for generations. It's also historically poorer than the rest of Italy, with locals preferring fish because of its relative affordability.

4. The Unification of Italy ultimately helped bring the feast to America.

In 1861, the regions of the Italian peninsula joined to form a single nation. The states of the south (what had formerly been the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) would suffer for it. The new government began allocating most of its resources to nurturing the north, causing poverty and organized crime in the south—which were already problems—to worsen. The situation plunged southern Italy into such poverty that approximately 4 million people from the region moved to America between 1880 and 1924. It’s no surprise that those immigrants took their tradition of big, fishy Christmas Eve dinners with them, making it a popular Italian-American celebration today.

5. In Italy, they would have simply called the feast La Vigilia.

Those immigrants, however, probably didn’t call it the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” More likely, they called it some variant of La Cena della vigilia, Il Cenone, La vigilia di Natale, or simply La Vigilia. The current name of the feast—and the practice of making exactly seven types of fish—comes from the new world. “Not many people observe these numbers in Italy,” cookbook author Amy Riolo told American Food Roots. “It’s much more popular in [America]. Americans love themes.”

"As an Italian, I must admit I hadn’t heard about [the Feast of Seven Fishes] … and most of my Italian friends haven’t either," Katia Amore wrote in Italy Magazine.

6. It’s unclear what the “seven fishes” signify.

Nobody knows where the “seven fishes” moniker came from. Many insist it’s a religious symbol. The number seven, after all, appears hundreds of times in the Bible and is significant in the Roman Catholic Church: It may represent the seven sacraments. Or the seven virtues. Or perhaps it commemorates the day Christians believe God rested. Others say the number is just a good marketing tool used by restaurants. (Indeed, the earliest newspaper article we found containing the phrase “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is a 1983 advertisement for a restaurant in Philadelphia.)

7. The variety is mouthwatering.

“Talk with 10 Italian-Americans about the special feast, and you could come up with 10 dinner menus, plus a varying selection of fish,” Gerald Etter wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer. And that’s the beauty of the feast: There are no hard and fast rules. Some people include as many as 12 or 13 dishes, including mussels in spaghetti, fried calamari, anchovies, sardines, whiting with lemon, scungilli, lobster fra diavolo, capellini with tuna sauce, branzino, sole, and shrimp scampi. Many insist on eel. (“You can’t have Christmas Eve without eel,” John Tenaglia tells the Inquirer.) Another almost universal recommendation is baccalà—dried, salted cod. But the most important ingredient, of course, is friends and family.

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

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iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

California Retirement Home Put Residents' Vintage Wedding Dresses on Display

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iStock.com/raksybH

You know you’ve reached a certain level of maturity when many of your once-modern day belongings can be described as vintage. It’s a term the residents of the Stoneridge Creek retirement community are taking in stride this month, because some of their (yes, vintage) wedding dresses are now on display.

The Pleasanton, California retirement home has created an elaborate presentation of more than 20 dresses with various laces, styles, and lengths, some of which date back to 1907, along with wedding photos and other memorabilia to commemorate Valentine’s Day. The public is invited, but if you’re not local, you can catch a glimpse of the dresses in the video below.

This isn’t the first time Stoneridge Creek has made news. In 2015, a number of residents came together to craft quilts for residents who had served in the military. The group worked in secret to make the customized quilts honoring their service, then surprised them with the gifts on Veterans Day.

[h/t ABC7]

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