Many years ago our family adopted the tradition of the Feast of Seven Fishes for our Christmas Eve holiday feast. It’s certainly changed over the years, but it’s still a fun family tradition we love doing. If you’re wondering what food to make for Christmas Eve dinner, give this a try!
And yes … there really are seven kinds of seafood!
A Way to Keep Tradition Alive
I want to pass on the best of our family culture, traditions, and heritage. For the Italian side, this often means passing on the food and recipes.
Trying to have a healthy lifestyle isn’t about throwing traditions centered around food out of the window. Far from it! Instead, I’ve modified meatball recipes, pasta recipes, and even Christmas cookie recipes to fit our allergies and dietary needs.
One Italian-American tradition in particular was easy and fun to continue with our family. It’s called “The Feast of the Seven Fishes” in the US but simply “La Vigilia,” (the vigil) in southern Italy. As the name suggests, this tradition literally involves making seven (or more) types of fish on Christmas Eve.
Feast of the Seven Fishes: It’s What’s for Christmas Eve Dinner!
There’s much debate as to the historical origin of this tradition, though we continue it simply because of its connection to family. Eating fish on Christmas Eve traces back to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays and specific Holy Days. Abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve would have signified waiting in anticipation of the Christ Child’s arrival on Christmas morning.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, there were a lot of southern Italian immigrants to America (especially New York). They brought with them the tradition of serving fish dishes on Christmas Eve. Many Italian-American families still continue this holiday season tradition.
The number seven is also up for debate, as many families serve fewer types of fish (and some serve as many as 13!). Seven is likely the most common number because of its strong historical and cultural significance in many parts of Europe, including Italy. In biblical history, the number seven represents completeness and perfection. There are also seven sacraments and seven deadly sins in Catholic teachings.
Does it Have to Be Fish?
Some people really do stick to seven types of fish at their seafood feast. Others (like myself) just aim for seven different kinds of seafood.
NOTE: You don’t have to make all of the dishes at once to try this tradition! I certainly didn’t start making all seven at the beginning. Pick just one or two and you’ve got a festive, meaningful, and delicious Christmas Eve meal.
Our Family’s Version of “La Vigilia“
It’s taken me almost a decade to finally get into a good routine for this special Christmas Eve meal. As you can imagine, there can be a lot of prep work and cooking involved! I added a dish each year until I got to the full seven.
Now to make it even easier I make a seafood stew that has most (or all) of the seven fishes in it. There are a lot of different options, but here are our favorite dishes and ones I’ve often made for Christmas Eve dinner.
Appetizer Seafood Dishes
Cooking so many dishes can easily get overwhelming and involve too much food. Small appetizers are a good way to honor this Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition without going overboard. Any of these could be served as an appetizer or as part of the main meal.
Crab and Clam Arancini
Arancini is a traditional Italian food, but I’ve added two types of seafood to make it fit with this meal. The name means “little orange” and they’re small fried balls of rice that resemble an orange once cooked. They’re traditionally filled with mozzarella cheese and meat, but I use seafood, herbs, and peppers for a flavorful alternative.
Mussels in Wine Sauce
A dish that seems really fancy but couldn’t be simpler to make. Since this meal has so many courses, we only make 2-3 of these per person. The kids think they’re fun and enjoy helping make them. I use this recipe and mix up the herbs and spices a little each year.
Scallops in Browned Butter
I love scallops and they’re a perfect part of a holiday meal. Our favorite way to make them is with a little browned butter, olive oil, and fresh herbs. Since there are so many other dishes at this meal, we only make one per person. My recipe is very similar to this one (I just leave out the capers).
This simple appetizer couldn’t be easier to prepare. Boiled and then cooled shrimp are dipped in a zesty, tomato-based sauce. If you don’t have a healthy premade cocktail sauce available, then try this homemade one. Primal Kitchen has an unsweetened ketchup that would work well in this recipe.
Skillet Bang Bang Shrimp with Sriracha Dipping Sauce
All the flavors of the famous bang-bang shrimp without the deep frying! I saute shrimp in butter until cooked and serve with a sweet chili and sriracha sauce.
Canned sardines are another easy (and healthy) appetizer to whip up for this meal. You can mash them in the can and serve them on top of crackers with a slice of cheese. Canned fish really cuts down on the prep time for this dinner. Here are a few other ideas for how to eat sardines.
Pasta dishes often accompany this seafood spread, but it’s not something we typically do.
If you want to cook some pasta for your meal, here are some options. Sometimes we’ll use gluten-free rice noodles for pasta, or I’ll often make veggie noodles. Add some homemade marinara sauce and you’re in business! If you’re feeling spicy, try some fra diavolo sauce instead.
Baccalà- Salted Cod in Butter & Wine Reduction
Baccalà is a traditional main course for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Traditionally, this is made with true Baccalà cod that’s been preserved in salt and dried. Before I moved to the south this was hard to find so I got creative.
I’ve made my own version using fresh cod and salt in a butter and wine sauce. Here’s a classic Baccalà recipe if you want to make your own.
Soups, Salads, and Sides
Since the meal is more complex we keep the sides super simple on this night. I’ll often just make a fresh salad and roast some broccoli. You could even make a seafood salad with this tasty Caesar salad. The dressing is made with salty anchovies and I like to top it with some sardines.
A family favorite recreated from a soup we had in a restaurant. This simple shrimp bisque is really easy to make and has amazing flavor. Making this one at Christmas always reminds me how good it is and to put it back in the family meal rotation.
Over the years our Christmas Eve dinner routine has changed a lot. While I still make some of these recipes for the meal, I’ve simplified the process thanks to this soup. Traditionally known as cioppino, seafood stew features hearty fish fillets like halibut and shellfish. It’s an easy way to pack most (or all) of the 7 types of seafood into one main dish.
You can also make something like this hearty seafood chowder. I’d use arrowroot powder instead of the all-purpose flour though.
Feast of the Seven Fishes Serving Tips
If you’re not relying on a seafood heavy soup, there can be quite a few meals to prepare at once. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to do most of it ahead of time. I typically prepare everything except the scallops beforehand. I gently reheat the dishes, sauté the scallops, toss the salad, and we’re ready to go!
Another way to make the meal more festive is to have some special wines on hand. Since I discovered Dry Farm Wines, I also make sure I have some of their white wine to serve for a perfect pairing. The kids get some sparkling fruit-infused water in fancy glasses!
For dessert I’ll usually just serve some fresh fruit with a little whipped cream on top. If you want to go all out on dessert though, here are some tasty dessert recipes to try.
Do you have any special traditions for Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner?