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.

9 Things You Should Keep in Mind Around Someone Observing Ramadan

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iStock.com/silverkblack

To mark the ninth (and most holy) month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan. Often compared to Lent in Christianity and Yom Kippur in Judaism, Ramadan is all about restraint. For one month, Muslims observing Ramadan fast during the day and then feast at night.

By abstaining from food and water (as well as sex, smoking, fighting, etc.) during daylight, Muslims strive to practice discipline, instill gratitude for what they have, and draw closer to Allah. To be respectful and not annoy observers, here are nine things you should never say or do to someone observing Ramadan.

1. DON'T JOKE ABOUT WEIGHT LOSS.

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Although it might be tempting to joke about Ramadan being a good excuse to lose weight, it is a time for spiritual reflection and is a serious matter. Observers undertake the challenge of fasting for religious and spiritual reasons rather than aesthetic ones. And, once the sun sets each night, many Muslims prepare a hearty iftar (the meal that breaks the fast) of dates, curries, rice dishes, and other delicious foods. The suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) is often fresh fruit, bread, cheese, and dishes that are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. The idea of a cleanse is pretty far from their minds.

2. DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS.

An Indian Muslim student recites from the Quran in a classroom during the holy month of Ramadan.
NOAH SEELAM, AFP/Getty Images

There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, but not all of them observe Ramadan the same way. Although most observant Muslims fast for Ramadan, don't assume that every Muslim you meet has the same methods, traditions, and attitudes towards fasting. For some, Ramadan is more about prayer, reading the Qur'an, and performing acts of charity than merely about forgoing food and drink. And for those who may be exempted from the daily fasting, such as pregnant or nursing women, the elderly, or those with various health conditions, they might not appreciate the reminder from nosey busy-bodies that they aren't participating in the traditional way.

3. SAY "RAMADAN MUBARAK" INSTEAD OF "HAPPY RAMADAN."

A sign which reads
A sign which reads "Ramadan Kareem" in Arabic is seen pictured in front of the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai.
GIUSEPPE CACACE, AFP/Getty Images

Rather than wishing someone a happy Ramadan, being more thoughtful with your choice of words can show that you understand and respect the sanctity of their holy month. Saying "Ramadan Mubarak" or "Ramadan Kareem" are the traditional ways to impart warm wishes—they both convey the generosity and blessings associated with the month. The actual party comes after Ramadan, when Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, an up to three-day festival that involves plenty of food, time with family, and gifts.

4. DON'T BE A FOOD PUSHER.

Muslim woman saying no to an apple.
iStock.com/LiudmylaSupynska

Even if the idea of not eating or drinking all day might be unfathomable to you, don't push food onto anyone observing Ramadan. While fasting all day for a month can cause mild fatigue, dehydration, and dizziness, don't try to convince participating Muslims to eat or drink something—they are fully aware of any side effects they may feel throughout the day. Instead, be respectful of their decision to fast and offer to lend a hand with something like chores, errands, or anything unrelated to food.

5. ACCEPT THAT WATER ISN'T ON THE MENU.

Dates and a glass of water.
iStock.com/Blackbox2522

Muslims who observe Ramadan don't sip any liquids during daytime. No water, coffee, tea, or juice. Zilch. Going without water is even harder than going without food, so be aware of the struggle and accept it. It's all part of the sacrifice and self-discipline inherent in Ramadan.

6. RESPECT PEOPLE'S PRIVACY.

Pregnant woman doing yoga.
iStock.com/UntitledImages

Some Muslims choose not to fast during Ramadan for medical or other personal reasons, and they may not appreciate being badgered with questions about why they may be eating or drinking rather than fasting. Children and the elderly generally don't fast all day, and people who are sick are exempt from fasting. Other conditions that preclude fasting during Ramadan are pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menstruation (although, if possible, people generally make up the days later).

7. BE MINDFUL OF ENERGY LEVELS.

Woman running on the beach.
iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

Eschewing food and drink for hours at a time can cause lethargy, so be aware that Muslims observing Ramadan may be more tired than usual. Your Muslim friends and coworkers don't stop working for an entire month, but they may tweak their schedules to allow for more rest. They may also stay indoors more (to prevent overheating) and avoid unnecessary physical activity to conserve energy. So, don't be offended if they aren't down for a pick-up game of basketball or soccer. We can't all be elite athletes.

8. DON'T OBSESS OVER FOOD AND HUNGER.

Family playing in the park.
iStock.com/aydinmutlu

One of the worst things you can do to someone on a new diet is to obsess over all the cheeseburgers, pizza, and cupcakes they can't have. Similarly, most Muslims observing Ramadan don't want to have in-depth conversations about all the food and beverages they're avoiding. Be mindful that you don't become the constant reminder of how many hours are left until sundown—just as you shouldn't joke about weight loss, you shouldn't call attention to any hunger pangs.

9. DON'T BE AFRAID TO EAT YOUR OWN FOOD.

Coworkers discussing a project on couches.
iStock.com/RoosterHD

Although it's nice to avoid talking about food in front of a fasting Muslim, don't be afraid to eat your own food as you normally would. Seeing other people eating and drinking isn't offensive—Muslims believe that Ramadan is all about sacrifice and self-discipline, and they're aware that not everyone participates. However, perhaps try to avoid scheduling lunch meetings or afternoon barbecues with your Muslim colleagues and friends. Any of those can surely wait until after Ramadan ends.

This story was republished in 2019.

30 Offbeat Holidays You Can Celebrate in May

iStock.com/Wildroze
iStock.com/Wildroze

From May Day to Memorial Day and everything in between, the month of May is full of delightful, offbeat holidays.

  1. May 1: Lei Day

You've heard of May Day, but this is the Hawaiian equivalent. Celebrate the islands' culture with lei-making contests, Hawaiian food and music, and even the crowning of the Lei Queen.

  1. May 1: Mother Goose Day

Founded in 1987 by Gloria T. Delamar in conjunction with the publication of her book, Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, this is a day to "re-appreciate" the old nursery rhymes.

  1. May 1: New Homeowners Day

One could argue that getting out of the rental game is a celebration in itself, but here's a holiday for brand new homeowners anyway. (A Risky Business-style dance party would be one good way to party with all that room.)

  1. May 3: National Two Different Colored Shoes Day

For people who want to practice a safe level of nonconformity.

  1. May 4: Star Wars Day

     Darth Vader and two stormtroopers from the film 'Star Wars' stand menacingly over some road works in London's Oxford Street in 1980.
    Central Press/Getty Images

May the fourth be with you!

  1. May 4: Free Comic Book Day

Ever since 2002, the first Saturday of May has seen participating independent comic book stores across the country hand out their wares for free. Over 3 million comic books are given away each year.

  1. May 4: International Respect For Chickens Day

You might appreciate them for the sustenance they provide, or you might appreciate them so much that you don’t use them for sustenance. Either way, celebrate the chicken today.

  1. May 6: No Homework Day

We assume this applies to kids and adults alike.

  1. May 7: National Cosmopolitan Day

We love a holiday with a built-in way to celebrate: in this case, with Carrie Bradshaw's favorite cocktail.

  1. May 8: No Socks Day

    Baby taking first steps
    iStock.com/simonkr

The pitch for this holiday cites the lighter load of laundry foregoing socks will create. This seems specious at best—how big are your socks?— but let's all hope it will be sandal weather by this point, in which case you can and should definitely go without socks.

  1. May 10: Stay Up All Night Night

Staying up all night pretty much always leads to some great stories.

  1. May 11: Eat What You Want Day

The best holidays encourage you to break some dietary rules and this one might be the best of all because it encourages you to break all of them.

  1. May 11: National Babysitter’s Day

Because, let's be real: their job isn't always easy.

  1. May 11: National Train Day

National Train Day celebrates when the "golden spike" was driven into the final tie in Promontory Summit, Utah, to connect the Central Pacific and Union Continental railroads, creating a country unified by 1776 miles of train track.

  1. May 12: National Limerick Day

Observed annually on the birthday of English author Edward Lear, whose 1846 A Book of Nonsense helped bring the lyrical form to popularity.

  1. May 13: National Hummus Day

    A fresh bowl of hummus with cucumbers
    iStock.com/TheCrimsonMonkey

Give us all the food holidays.

  1. May 14: Underground America Day

Underground America Day honors those who make their homes not just on Earth, but in it. It was invented by architect Malcolm Wells in 1974 and those who wish to celebrate can do so by doing things like riding the subway, burying treasure, eating root vegetables, or thinking about moles.

  1. May 16: Biographers Day

This is celebrated annually on the anniversary of the 1763 meeting in London between James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, which launched one of the most famous author-subject relationships and produced the biographies Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Life of Samuel Johnson.

  1. May 16: Mimosa Day

What would brunch be without them?

  1. May 17: National Bike To Work Day

We can't promise you won't arrive to the office slightly sweaty, but we can give you permission to skip the gym after completing your cycling commute.

  1. May 17: National Pizza Party Day

    A table full of freshly made pizzas
    iStock.com/AlexeyBorodin

Party is a relative term, by the way. You and a pizza is definitely a party.

  1. May 18: International Museum Day

On this day, the entire planet celebrates museums and all the amazing things they have to offer. We recommend checking for events and activities in your area: Hundreds of thousands of museums join the party every year.

  1. May 20: Eliza Doolittle Day

Today is a good day to channel your inner Eliza (either before or after the etiquette lessons).

  1. May 22: National Maritime Day

A Presidential Proclamation issued in 1933 made this day an official holiday dedicated to recognizing the maritime industry. It is set to coincide with the date in 1819 that the American steamship Savannah set sail on the first ever transoceanic voyage under steam power.

  1. May 22: World Goth Day

They'll act like they don't want/need/care about having a day in the calendar, but come on, everyone wants to be celebrated.

  1. May 23: World Turtle Day

    A green turtle approaching the surface of the water
    iStock.com/Searsie

Celebrate by reading 20 things you didn't know about sea turtles right here.

  1. May 24: International Tiara Day

Who's a pretty princess? Anyone who wants to celebrate Tiara Day.

  1. May 25: National Tap Dance Day

The perfect day to put on your dancing shoes.

  1. May 25: Towel Day

To honor author Douglas Adams, fans carry around a towel all day. The tradition is a nod to a passage in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about the importance of towels: "A towel, [The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have." Good enough for us.

  1. May 30: Loomis Day

This is a day to honor Mahlon Loomis, a oft-forgotten Washington D.C.-based dentist who received the first U.S. patent on a wireless telegraphy system in 1872—before Guglimo Marconi, who is credited with inventing the first radio, was even born.

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