While I love discovering new things, I am a traditionalist at heart. This means that for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, I serve the same main entrees every year. As an Italian, Christmas Eve has its own traditional menu. This celebration, La Vigilia di Natale (The Vigil of the Birth), is also known as The Feast of the Seven Fishes. I know that we eat fish because Christmas Eve is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, but I have never gotten a satisfactory reason for why we have seven fish. In fact, some people serve twelve dishes for the feast. Over the years, I’ve heard various explanations of what the number of fish served at this meal represents, but none of them have anything, in particular, to do with the birth of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding like Tevye in “Fiddler On The Roof,” it’s tradition!
Every year when I was growing up, we traveled to my grandmother’s house for, what my sisters and I fondly referred to as, the “Fish Fest.” And every year Gran’s table swam with a stunning abundance of calamari, baccala, smelts, whiting, sardines, anchovies, and eel. Believe it or not, in addition to all the fish, she also made a giant bowl of homemade spaghetti with an oil-based tomato sauce, an antipasto platter, and a dish of sauteed savoy cabbage. My dad and uncle always ate so much that after dinner they would lay on the living room floor in a food coma and unbutton their pants for a while before we could open our presents. The meal was so epic that we all gorged ourselves and didn’t even care that our clothes and hair were infused with enough fishy goodness that in church afterward, people would sniff the air and turn around in their pews to see who had spent the evening rolling around in the hold of a fishing trawler. I have no idea how my grandmother ever got that much “essence of fish” out of her house.
Today, unfortunately, neither my kids nor my husband are big fans of seafood, so it would be a waste of good fish to prepare the Feast of the Seven Fishes for my picky family. However, I feel that honoring our traditions is vitally important because tradition connects us to our past and grounds us as we face the future. So instead of making all my Gran’s delicious pesce, I observe our tradition by making a single shrimp dish as well as her oil spaghetti.
Because I don’t have to spend all day preparing a seafood extravaganza, I have time to devote myself to setting a festive table for our “Feast of One Fish.” And maybe, since there seems to be no consensus about the appropriate number or meaning of the fish that should be included in this feast, our celebration is just as significant as any other Christmas Eve dinner.
Christmas Eve Table Setting
This year I decided to build my Christmas Eve table setting around these adorable red lantern ornaments from Pier One.
They are great on the tree because, while they look like tin, they are made primarily of cardboard and are super light so they can be hung on the flimsiest branches. However on my table, since they light up, they function as votives at each place setting. They also serve as place cards, as I attached personalized chalkboard Christmas labels (downloaded for free from Lia Griffith’s awesome website) to each lantern.
Recipe for Oil-based Tomato Sauce
Note: My grandmother’s basic sauce contains salt pork or fatback, but because meat is prohibited on Christmas Eve, the Feast of the Seven Fishes sauce is started with oil.
1/2 cup of olive oil (Gran used cottonseed oil, but I prefer olive oil)
4 garlic cloves
salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste
2 large (28oz.) cans San Marzano crushed tomatoes (Gran used whole tomatoes and pureed them in a blender)
1 medium can unseasoned Hunts tomato sauce
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
1 cup of water
In a large stock pot lightly brown garlic cloves in the olive oil.
Add salt, pepper and crushed red pepper flakes to taste.
Add crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato puree and a cup of water.
Simmer for 4 hours until desired thickness is attained.