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7 Fishes Christmas Eve Italian Recipes and More!

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Dive into the Feast of Seven Fishes and catch a delicious new family tradition!


Feast of 7 Fishes Christmas Eve dinner

An Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, or Festa dei Sette Pesci, is an Italian-American tradition of gathering with family and friends for a large meal featuring seven different types of seafood or seven different fish dishes on Christmas Eve, La Vigilia di Natale.

Often simply called La Vigilia, the feast typically contains at least 7 different seafood dishes, though there may be as many variations on the types and number of dishes as there are fish in the sea. Some families insist that no mammal/poultry products of any kind should make an appearance in the meal, while others may include dairy, eggs, and even some meat from the land or sky in their spread.



What are the origins of la Festa dei Sette Pesci?

National Geographic ties the beginnings of the Feast of the 7 Fishes to the mass immigration of Italians to the United States in the late 1800s-early 1900s. According to PBS.org's Destination America, more than four million Italians fled from war and rural poverty, particularly in Southern Italy and Sicily, to the United States between the years of 1880 and 1924. Arriving in the States, Italian-American families brought with them their Catholic faith and fierce determination to make a new life for themselves while never forgetting where they came from.


In the old country as Roman Catholics, Italian families would have celebrated la Vigilia di Natale with la cena della Vigilia, Christmas Eve dinner. In the States, perhaps inspired by the prosperity they hoped to experience in their new home, la cena became la Festa dei Sette Pesci, the party (or feast) of seven fishes. The Feast became a way for the Italian immigrants to establish an identity for themselves that emphasized the importance of family and the connection to both their Italian traditions and their new life as Italian Americans.

While la Festa dei Sette Pesci itself may have been made in America, the custom of eating seafood for Christmas Eve wouldn't have been a novel concept to many of the Italian immigrants. In Southern Italy and Sicily, fish was cheap, plentiful, and accessible for poor families. Even for immigrants from central or Northern Italy with less access to fresh seafood, Christmas Eve would have been a time for abstaining from mammal and poultry meat due to Roman Catholic customs.



What is the significance of the fish?

Carnegie Museum of Natural History suggests that for some families, seafood (or the sea) may symbolize the bridge between the old country and the new country. However, the original significance of seafood for cena della Vigilia goes back further than that.

The Roman Catholic Church has long called for an abstention from meat on certain days like Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Fridays during Lent, and, until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, several other holy days, including Christmas Eve, as a sort of preparation of the spirit.

All throughout scripture, fasting or abstaining is seen as a spiritual act that helps one draw closer to God and focus on spiritual provision rather than satisfying the desires of the flesh. Goodcatholic.com says that Catholics abstain from mammal and poultry flesh on Fridays and holy days in honor and remembrance of Jesus giving up His flesh for us on Good Friday.


The reason fish was allowed on days of abstention is likely two-fold:

  1. Because it was so cheap and plentiful, fish was considered less of a luxury/extravagance than other meat.

  2. Jesus was warm-blooded, so to remember His sacrifice, we abstain from the flesh of warm-blooded animals. Almost all fish are cold-blooded.

What about the number 7?

There are MANY explanations for the significance of the number seven, most of them related to the Roman Catholic faith:

  • 7 days of creation, including God's sabbath day of rest

  • 7 sacraments

  • 7 deadly sins

  • 7 is a Biblical/Hebrew number of "completeness" and is spelled (in Hebrew) with the same consonants as the Hebrew word for "complete/full" (BibleProject.com), indicating the concept of being made perfect or whole

  • 7 prominent Old Testament festivals

  • 7 churches addressed in the book of Revelation

  • 7 represents miraculous provision--Jesus fed the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes (5+2=7)

  • 7 appears more than 700 times in the Bible, according to Crosswalk.com

Some say that the number 7 represents the 7 hills of Rome, reinforcing the idea of Italian heritage.


I have one more theory:



7 fish for 7 hours

The Italian word vigilia means eve, as in, "the day or evening before a festival" or "the time just before an event" (Cambridge Dictionary) and comes from the Latin word suggesting wakeful anticipation (Latdict). Any day before a holiday or big event would be la vigilia. But La Vigilia, THE Eve, refers to this particular cena, this particular festa, the feast that honors the anticipation of the birth of Jesus.

If the feast begins roughly at sundown on Christmas Eve, and sundown in December in the United States is roughly 5 p.m., that leaves one fish dish for every hour leading up to midnight--the beginning of Christmas Day--celebrating the long-awaited birth of the Perfect One who makes us complete.


Kinda ties it all together, don't you think?


How to have your own Feast of 7 Fishes

Ok, so you're thinking about making some new family traditions, and you want to do things the Italian way for the first time.

The first thing to know is that you can totally make this holiday tradition your own. There are many traditional dishes you could include, but you could also mix things up by giving all your dishes an Asian twist or Southern spin.

You could serve everything at once or have seven distinct courses. You could do all the work yourself or do a potluck-style feast for which everyone brings something to share. You might end up with more than 7 fish dishes, and that's ok, too!


It's common to include a few things that are appetizer-ish, a chilled seafood salad and/or soup, pasta course or two, and plenty of veggie sides and desserts for good measure. Traditionally, the white wine would be flowing throughout the night, but club soda with a squeeze of lemon juice is a perfectly festive stand-in.


Whether fancy and fashionable, casual and chill, or full of little kids in tomato sauce-stained Christmas jammies, the important thing is to gather around the dinner table and share love.


7 Fishes Christmas Eve Italian recipes

Some of the most popular "fishes" to serve for the Feast include baccala (salt cod), mussels, clams, calamari (squid), octopus, shrimp, lobster, and branzino (sea bass). Of course, there are many other different kinds of seafood that would work as well.


Here are a few of our favorite 7 Fishes Christmas Eve Italian recipes to get you started!


paleo fried calamari

Lump Crab, Orange, and Fennel Salad

paleo Caesar salad

Zuppa di Pesce

Whole30 Shrimp Scampi

Christmas Slamon

Paleo Focaccia

Nutty Chocolate Chip Biscotti, gluten free, dairy free

Easy Figgy Truffles

Cherry Christmas Cookies

Merry Christmas, buon Natale, from our family to yours!

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