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The Feast of the Seven Fishes

The Vigil

By Jim DeLilloPublished 2 years ago 3 min read
Table set for the Feast of the Seven Fishes (c) Jim DeLillo

One of my favorite childhood memories is Christmas Eve dinner, or Vigilia—the vigil, as the Italians call it. We always went to my aunt’s home, and all our cousins were there.

On this night, the dinner consists of The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

(c) Jim DeLillo

Origins and tradition

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is part of the Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration, although it is not called that in Italy and is not a "feast" in the sense of "holiday," but rather a grand meal. Christmas Eve is a vigil or fasting day, and the abundance of seafood reflects the observance of abstinence from meat until the feast of Christmas Day itself.

Today, the meal typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. The tradition comes from Southern Italy, where it is known as The Vigil (La Vigilia). This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on the eve of a feast day. As no meat or animal fat could be used on such days, observant Catholics would instead eat fish (typically fried in oil). It is unclear when or where the term "Feast of the Seven Fishes" was popularized. The first known mention is in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1983.

The meal includes seven or more fishes that are considered traditional. "Seven fishes" as a fixed concept or name is unknown in Italy itself. In some Italian-American families as well, there is no count of the number of fish dishes. A well-known dish is baccalà (salted cod fish). The custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà reflects customs in what were historically impoverished regions of Southern Italy, as well as seasonal factors. Fried smelts, calamari and other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.

The number seven may come from the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church, or the seven hills of Rome, or some other source. There is no general agreement on its meaning. ~Wikipedia

The Fish

The fish allows for a hearty meal in observance of the church’s abstinence rules. The actual number isn’t relevant, only that plenty of fish is laid on the table. Shrimp, clams, fried sole, smelts, lobster, cod, and calamari are a few of the varieties that may make up the meal.

(c) Jim DeLillo
(c) Jim DeLillo

Baccalà Salad

My aunt followed the tradition with zeal. One of the most traditional dishes was her baccalà salad.

Baccalà is salt cod; the preparation is notorious for the 3-day soaking with multiple changes of water. The fish, as you could imagine, gives off its natural odor as the salt leeches out. At the end of the three days, the fish is boiled and mixed ala salad with celery, onions, oil, vinegar, and the Italian spices of oregano and basil. The mixture is best refrigerated overnight for the flavors to meld.

(c) Jim DeLillo

I adapted the recipe for a mock baccalà salad.

The Recipe

DeLillo’s Mock Baccala’ Salad


  • 2 pounds fresh boneless cod (in lieu of baccalà)
  • ½ cup celery, diced
  • ½ cup onions, diced
  • 1 tablespoon shallot
  • 1/4 cup Italian, flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons white vinegar
  • Salt (a little extra) and pepper to taste
  • Red chili flakes to taste

(c) Jim DeLillo


Cut the cod into 1-inch pieces. Drop the cod into salted boiling water and cook until the fish breaks off easily. Strain and cool. After it cools, remove skin and bones, if there are any.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cod, celery, onions, shallots, parsley, oil, and vinegar.

Toss gently.

Season with salt and pepper and the Italian herbs

Cover and refrigerate overnight to meld the flavors.

If you can’t come up with seven fishes, Wikipedia lists some popular seafood dishes served for this meal

(c) Jim DeLillo

• Baccalà with pasta, as a salad, or fried

• Baked cod

• Clams casino

• Cod fish balls in tomato sauce

• dolphinfish

• Deep fried calamari

• Deep fried cod

• Deep fried fish/shrimp

• Deep fried scallops

• Fried smelts

• Insalata di mare (seafood salad)

• Linguine with anchovy, clam, lobster, tuna, or crab sauce

• Marinated or fried eel

• Octopus salad

• Oyster shooters

(c) Jim DeLillo

• Puttanesca with anchovies

• Scungilli salad

• Shrimp cocktail

• Stuffed calamari in tomato sauce

• Stuffed-baked lobsters

• Stuffed-baked quahogs

• Whiting

(c) Jim DeLillo

More cookbooks for The Feast of The Seven Fishes on Amazon

This story was previously published in https://issuu.com/foodwinetravelmagazine/docs/traditionsfwt/14

Prints of Jim DeLillo's photographs are available at:


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About the Creator

Jim DeLillo

Jim DeLillo writes about tech, science, and travel. He is also an adventure photographer specializing in transporting imagery and descriptive narrative.

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Comments (4)

  • Mcgrotha Brinker2 years ago

    Well written

  • Flaugher Cantoni2 years ago


  • Wow!

  • boland gracelyn2 years ago

    That's amazing!

Jim DeLilloWritten by Jim DeLillo

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