Mary Ann's Blog

Fish Tale: Feast of the Seven Fishes

Spgahetti with clamsHave you heard of the feast of the seven fishes? How about the feast of the twelve fishes?

Well, if you grew up Italian you know that this refers to the vigilia (the vigil) or Christmas Eve. Years ago, the day before Christmas was declared a fast day by the Catholic Church, so no meat could be consumed. Instead you ate fish, and lots of it.

That ban has long been lifted, but Italian Americans still carry on the fish tradition. 

Ironically, no one in Italy that I know ever heard of the feast of the seven or even twelve fishes. Many cookbook writers claim it was started in southern Italy, and I can buy into it since my family is all southern Italian.

Squid salad So where did this come from? We may never know. But once Italians arrived in America, they brought their customs with them and many changed over time.

The feast may have been created out of the abundance found in America! Whatever the truth of this tale, it is a great tradition to carry on. Some say the number of fish, seven, represents the last full week of Advent or the seven Sacraments. The number twelve is said to represent the twelve Apostles. Some people I know actually make twelve fish courses!

Stuffed spinach with nuts Whatever the true story is, I still carry on this fish tradition, but I have cut back the number of dishes to three; I usually include three favorites like frutta di mare, fritto misto di pesce and my favorite, spaghetti with clams.

Check out more Italian fish the recipes at and create a fish tale of your own. 


  1. Catherine Ivester's avatar

    Catherine Ivester

    My family has always celebrated the vigilia with traditional fish recipes. Through the years a lot of it has changed. The eel is gone as is the squid (fabulous dishes) but there is shrimp and other wonderful things. My mother (who passed away two years ago) was a teriffic cook. She had kept the holiday authentic. The crowning glory of her Christmas Eve table was a cod fish stew that contained tomatoes, leeks and prunes. There also was a wonderful red pepper salad with vinegar, black olives and anchovies which she put up in jars at the height of the summer season. First course always (and still is)was macaroni with puttenesca sauce with homemade hot pepper flakes. We have had to streamline the menu for a generation of kids that won't look at certain fish. But all in all it basially is the same Christmas from my childhood.

Leave a Comment

Looking for even more photos and recipes?
Order my latest book.

Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy

Mary Ann's newest book contains over 150 recipes, 60 gorgeous food photos, and many scenic pictures of Italy taken by Mary Ann on her travels through the years.

Order using this link and receive a signed book plate.

Available now!