While the holidays are sure to look different this year, we can still celebrate some of our favorite traditions. My favorite holiday tradition is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which is very common among Italian-American families; around Christmas time, my family gathers together to celebrate Christmas with a huge dinner made up of seven different fish and seafood dishes coming in all different types of forms.
The tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes stems from 20th-century Italian-American immigrants who—homesick for the land they left behind—combined classic Italian dishes with seafood. The sea was a representation of the connection between their home country and new one.
Dishes can consist of multiple types of seafood, including fish, shrimp, mussels, calamari, or scallops mixed into pasta or savory vegetables.
Seafood is also eaten on holidays instead of meat in traditional Roman-Catholic denominations and became another reason to eat seafood close to Christmas Eve. The number seven stems from the biblical importance of the number and its lucky connotation. While many of these symbols are taken from Catholicism and Italian tradition, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is virtually unheard of in Italy and instead is considered an Italian-American tradition.
The tradition allows for a lot of adaptability—different families tend to have different types of seafood or dishes passed down generation to generation. Our family changes the seafood every year with new dishes added depending on who makes what. We always have our favorites though, which include anchovies in the Caesar salad, stuffed shrimp with crab, smelts, and calamari. For dessert, my grandmother always makes zeppole, an Italian-fried donut covered in cinnamon sugar. She also makes savory zeppole, which are stuffed with anchovies to keep with the seafood theme. Last year was the first year I had the courage to try them and they are delicious! We also have dishes that incorporate some of our other ethnicities including halushki to celebrate our Eastern European origins. Halushki is a pasta dish made from thick egg noodles, cabbage, and bacon (my family doesn’t take the “no meat rule” too seriously).
Zeppole are a common dessert that are especially popular in Rome and Naples. They can be served with just sugar or filled with custard or jelly.
I love seeing family traditions evolve to meet everyone’s ideal version of the holidays. And even though we may have to change some of those traditions or skip them altogether this year, we can still look back and see how much closer they bring us all together, no matter what holiday we celebrate!
Sydney Dominick is a Gallery Experience Presenter in CMNH’s Life Long Learning Department. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.