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  • The Christmas Eve Dinner

    By Anthony Parente

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    One of the big mysteries surrounding Christmas Eve has to do with dinner and the significance of the number of fish dishes prepared. Many people have asked me why do we have seven different fish dishes? To be honest I never knew why myself. Every Christmas Eve I can remember smelling the various fishes as my Mother prepared them. I never knew why we had to prepare so many I just knew that this meal had to consist of dishes that did not contain any meat and the number of fishes prepared had to be seven. The purpose for meatless dishes was due to the fact that the night prior to a religious feast was considered a vigil. During this religious observance meat is usually not served. I didn't know why seven was so special and I think no one else in my family did either. It is one of those traditions you do every year even though you don't know why it was ever done to begin with. The tradition was passed down from generation to generation, but somewhere along the way the meaning got left behind. What could the number seven truly mean?

    As I searched for the answer I found out that this tradition isn't one that you will find in all Italian households. In fact it appears that this is mainly a central and southern tradition and it is not upheld in the north. Of the regions that partake in this tradition each seems to do things slightly different. The biggest differences are the number of fish dishes prepared. Some prepare nine, eleven, or thirteen. Whichever number you prepare there is a meaning and reason for doing so.

    The number seven seemed to have quite a few different meanings. The meanings all go on what you and your family have believed in over the centuries. Some of these meanings consist of the days in a week, the seven pilgrimage churches in Rome, or the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, but the one that seems to be the most widely known reason is the seven sacraments.

    The number nine appears to represent the Holy Trinity times three, while the number eleven stands for the Apostles minus Judas, and conversely the number thirteen represents the 12 Apostles plus Jesus. I am sure these are not the only reasons for each number. If you and your family have a different meaning for the number of fish dishes prepared please take this opportunity to share it with everyone on our forum.

    My family has always followed the tradition of preparing seven fishes for Christmas Eve and so I have taken the opportunity to include these recipes for you to enjoy. The dishes that my family prepared are: baccalà, baked shrimp, fried calamari, pasta with anchovies, pesce a la padella, sandy eels and steak fish. Each recipe is located on a separate page. This is done to ensure that each recipe will be printed on a single page and that you print only the recipes that you wish to try. Buon Natale!


    • Vivian, Cassandra.  An Italian American Christmas in Western Pennsylvania.  Western Pennsylvania History (Winter 1999):   156-168.
    • Celebrations, Italian Style by Mary Ann Esposito
      This is a wonderful cookbook. In addition to many mouth watering recipes you will find many fascinating stories about the various holidays and feast days that Italians celebrate. This is available for purchase through Barnes &

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