For the Free Press
On Christmas Eve in Boston, while little tykes will lay nestled in their beds dreaming of sugar plum fairies and such, many Italian American families will be feasting on fishes.
For generations of Italians, Christmas Eve has meant the Feast of the Seven Fishes – or in more traditional speak – La Vigilia Di Natale. The tradition dates back to ancient times in Italy and was more popular in the southern and Adriatic regions of the country. When Italians began to immigrate here and the rest of the United States in the early 1900s, they brought the tradition with them.
The gist of the celebration is that seven different kinds of fish are served at Christmas Eve dinner and absolutely no other meat. The kinds and actual numbers of fish vary, but mostly one would find baccala (dried codfish), shrimp, smelts, mussels, clams, anchovies, calamari, whiting, sepia (baby octopus), lobster and, for the real purists, grilled eel.
And while the ages-old tradition seems to be dying out in large part with the older generation, many families here keep the feast going strong.
“For us, it’s a tradition we’ve had for many years,” said Angelo Prezioso of East Boston, and also the proprietor of Vinny’s Food Market of Revere. “It goes back a long time. I don’t know how long, but it’s very old. My generation, my mother and my father, we all try to keep the tradition alive. Many people try to keep up with it. They may not do all seven fish, but they do the important ones, especially the baccala. You can’t forget the baccala. The eel and baccala are the original parts of the Italian mixture.”
He said that keeping the tradition alive is equal to keeping the large Prezioso family together and close.
“We have one big table for all the fish,” he said. “We have like 40 people now when we get together. Are you kidding? Especially with the grandchildren now, there are a lot of us. Everyone comes and we visit and reminisce and talk about what’s going on. We try to enjoy our family a little bit while we enjoy our tradition.”
He said they would often fix fried smelts, lobster meat in gravy, octopus salad, and his mother’s fritters – which are a special deep-fried baccala dough patty that takes more than a day to make.
Prezioso said his wife’s family, who are Sicilian, do things a little differently, which is common. Many Italians, depending on what region their family came from, brought a slightly different version of the tradition with them to America.
“The Sicilians, at midnight, that’s when they do the octopus,” he said. “At the same time they also do a little round fried ball of baccala and dough. It’s like a fritter, but a little more plain. That’s also the time they’ll play jokes on someone who’s new to the family. If there’s a new boyfriend and he can take a joke, they’ll usually play a traditional family joke on him at midnight. It’s all in fun.”
The official meaning of the feast is unknown. However, there are about as many unofficial explanations as there are fish.
“I am familiar with the traditional Italian celebration of Christmas Eve by eating fish,” said Dr. Spencer Di Scala, president of the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, the state’s authority on Italian heritage. “I do not know how the custom started in any specific way, and I doubt anyone else does.”
Father Mike Guarino of St. Anthony’s Church said he had always believed that the seven fishes represented the seven sacraments.
“I really don’t know exactly what the significance is,” said Guarino. “My understanding is it has to do with the seven sacraments and that’s why there are seven fishes.”
And he might be onto something there.
Just about every explanation tends to have a religious overtone.
In her book, ‘The Basic Art of Italian Cooking,’ celebrity chef Maria Liberati explains that it is believed that the seven fish represent either the seven sacraments or the seven deadly sins.
She relates that others give the explanation that it is because Rome is the city of seven hills, and still others say it’s representative of the seven days it took for God to create the world.
Some families suggest that the very old tradition was to eat the fish sparingly on Christmas Eve, leaving most of it on the table and then solemnly fast for the remainder of the evening. Then, at midnight, it was time to feast and the beef, veal, chicken and other meats were brought out in great quantities. Everyone would then eat until dawn and sleep it all off on Christmas Day.
Whatever the reason, those who do continue the custom do so with gusto.
At Vinny’s Food Market this week, it was a lively place as customers came in asking for the special baby octopus, which the market carries by the stack. There are cartons full of the all-important baccala, and of course there are all of the extras that are needed to make the salads – including the Giardiniera, a vinegary vegetable mixture that is combined with octopus to make the traditional salad.
Customers order plates of octopus and buy special ingredients, all the while talking about how hard it is to keep the tradition going every year.
“We’ve got the mozzarella, the octopus, the cheeses and everything,” said Prezioso. “It’s all ready to go. People start coming in this week, usually. They have to get the stuff and get it going for Christmas Eve. Every day from now until Christmas it gets better and better.”