The Feast of the Seven Fishes: what identifies you as Italian?

Dec 22, 2012 1441

Even as a child I remember being more excited about Christmas Eve than Christmas day and my birthday combined – which is saying a lot for a kid. My family has been doing the Feast of the Seven Fishes for as long as I can remember, well really as long as my grandmother and great-grandmother could remember. And all these years later, I am still in awe of this long-standing Italian-American tradition.

Some say that the number seven symbolizes the seven sacraments in the Catholic church, others believe that it represents the seven virtues, but no one really knows why seven is often the number of fish on the Christmas Eve table. I've even heard of twelve fishes being served – and here I thought seven was a lot of work!

It's no secret that Italian Americans take pride in serving food to their families; in a new world where you didn't speak the language and barely had two pennies to rub together, it was the only thing we could take pride in at one point. When talking about my family's Christmas Eve tradition to friends, I always get a look of shock, confusion or genuine interest staring back at me. You mean to tell me that you soak something called a baccala in a tub for four days? Well, yes, we do! But for anyone who celebrates the Feast of the Seven Fishes, you know, like I do, that it's about a lot more than 50 lbs. of seafood.

It's about waking up to the sound of my family banging away in the kitchen, being allowed to cook a dish on your own for the first time, knowing the Christmas nativity play by heart (Yes, we've been performing it in our living room for nearly 40 years now.), sharing stories of those who have passed and going home with the smell of seafood in your clothes.

I often wonder if my great-grandparents ever dreamed that nearly a century after immigrating to this country their children, and their children's children, would be coming from all over the country to spend Christmas Eve together frying fish. As the years and generations pass, it's inevitable that we become less Italian and more American, so, what is it that still identifies us as Italians all these years later?

For me, it's the traditions around the kitchen table that make this blonde-haired, pale-faced girl as Italian as my great-grandmother. It's going to the 9th Street Italian Market in Philadelphia every year, as she did decades ago, to get fish from the same vendors. It's the handwritten recipes handed down from generation to generation that connect me with those who came before.

Anthony Bourdain was recently quoted as saying, "context and memory play powerful roles in all truly great meals in one's life," and I couldn't agree more. For many, the holidays invoke a renewed sense of familial love and celebration. For Italian Americans, we already have that love of family, so it's just one more occasion to sit around the kitchen table and remember what identifies us as Italians. For me, it's always been tradition.

So, what identifies you as Italian?

by Krystyne Hayes 

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