7 Facts About the Feast of the Seven Fishes

iStock/GMVozd
iStock/GMVozd

For Italian-Americans, the Feast of the Seven Fishes—a nostalgia-fueled, hours-long dinner consisting of at least seven different types of seafood—is the defining Christmas Eve tradition. Firmly rooted in Italy’s Roman Catholic background, the Festa dei Sette Pesci is a delectable blend of the sacred and secular, the old world and the new.

1. It is not a Roman Catholic feast day.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes may go hand-in-hand with Roman Catholicism, but it’s not a religious “feast day.” There is no such thing as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” in the Roman Catholic calendar. (In fact, in Roman Catholicism, a feast day has nothing to do with gorging yourself and everything to do with reflecting on and celebrating an important aspect of the faith, often the life of a saint.) The tradition’s name merely takes after the lay definition of feast: that is, there’s a lot of food on the table!

2. Traditionally, December 24 was a day to avoid food.

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, there are special days of abstinence (where followers are advised to avoid meat) and days of fasting (where followers are advised to reduce their food intake, usually to just one meal a day). Before reforms were made in the 1960s, December 24—what Roman Catholics call The Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord—was a day to fast and abstain, with worshippers generally allowed to break the fast in the evening. The Feast of the Seven Fishes, then, seems like an obvious solution to the circumstances: You have a big, hungry Catholic-Italian family that hasn’t touched food all day. None of them are allowed to eat meat. What else is there to do but prepare a giant evening meal of pasta and seafood?

3. The tradition began in Southern Italy, but not the name.

While the tradition of enjoying a large meatless Christmas Eve meal was (and remains) common across Italy—as well as many other Roman Catholic-dominated countries—the origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes has its roots in southern Italy. The area, which is surrounded by bountiful coastline, has been known for its seafood for generations. It's also historically poorer than the rest of Italy, with locals preferring fish because of its relative affordability.

4. The Unification of Italy ultimately helped bring the feast to America.

In 1861, the regions of the Italian peninsula joined to form a single nation. The states of the south (what had formerly been the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) would suffer for it. The new government began allocating most of its resources to nurturing the north, causing poverty and organized crime in the south—which were already problems—to worsen. The situation plunged southern Italy into such poverty that approximately 4 million people from the region moved to America between 1880 and 1924. It’s no surprise that those immigrants took their tradition of big, fishy Christmas Eve dinners with them, making it a popular Italian-American celebration today.

5. In Italy, they would have simply called the feast La Vigilia.

Those immigrants, however, probably didn’t call it the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” More likely, they called it some variant of La Cena della vigilia, Il Cenone, La vigilia di Natale, or simply La Vigilia. The current name of the feast—and the practice of making exactly seven types of fish—comes from the new world. “Not many people observe these numbers in Italy,” cookbook author Amy Riolo told American Food Roots. “It’s much more popular in [America]. Americans love themes.”

"As an Italian, I must admit I hadn’t heard about [the Feast of Seven Fishes] … and most of my Italian friends haven’t either," Katia Amore wrote in Italy Magazine.

6. It’s unclear what the “seven fishes” signify.

Nobody knows where the “seven fishes” moniker came from. Many insist it’s a religious symbol. The number seven, after all, appears hundreds of times in the Bible and is significant in the Roman Catholic Church: It may represent the seven sacraments. Or the seven virtues. Or perhaps it commemorates the day Christians believe God rested. Others say the number is just a good marketing tool used by restaurants. (Indeed, the earliest newspaper article we found containing the phrase “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is a 1983 advertisement for a restaurant in Philadelphia.)

7. The variety is mouthwatering.

“Talk with 10 Italian-Americans about the special feast, and you could come up with 10 dinner menus, plus a varying selection of fish,” Gerald Etter wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer. And that’s the beauty of the feast: There are no hard and fast rules. Some people include as many as 12 or 13 dishes, including mussels in spaghetti, fried calamari, anchovies, sardines, whiting with lemon, scungilli, lobster fra diavolo, capellini with tuna sauce, branzino, sole, and shrimp scampi. Many insist on eel. (“You can’t have Christmas Eve without eel,” John Tenaglia tells the Inquirer.) Another almost universal recommendation is baccalà—dried, salted cod. But the most important ingredient, of course, is friends and family.

This $49 Video Game Design Course Will Teach You Everything From Coding to Digital Art Skills

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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12 Things You Might Not Know About Juneteenth

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There's more than one Independence Day in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced enslaved people were now free. Since then, June 19 has been celebrated as Juneteenth across the nation. Here's what you should know about the historic event and celebration.

1. Enslaved people had already been emancipated—they just didn’t know it.

The June 19 announcement came more than two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. So technically, from the Union's perspective, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were already free—but none of them were aware of it, and no one was in a rush to inform them.

2. There are many theories as to why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t enforced in Texas.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

News traveled slowly back in those days—it took Confederate soldiers in western Texas more than two months to hear that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Still, some have struggled to explain the 30-month gap between Lincoln’s proclamation and the enslaved people’s freedom, leading to speculation that some Texans suppressed the announcement. Other theories include that the original messenger was murdered to prevent the information from being relayed or that the federal government purposely delayed the announcement to Texas to get one more cotton harvest out of the enslaved workers. But the real reason is probably that Lincoln's proclamation simply wasn't enforceable in the rebel states before the end of the war.

3. The announcement actually urged freedmen and freedwomen to stay with their former owners.

General Order No. 3, as read by General Granger, said:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

4. What followed was known as “the scatter.”


Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Most freedpeople weren't terribly interested in staying with the people who had enslaved them, even if pay was involved. In fact, some were leaving before Granger had finished making the announcement. What followed became known as "the scatter,," when droves of former enslaved people left the state to find family members or more welcoming accommodations in northern regions.

5. Not all enslaved people were freed instantly.

Texas is a large state, and General Granger's order (and the troops needed to enforce it) were slow to spread. According to historian James Smallwood, many enslavers deliberately suppressed the information until after the harvest, and some beyond that. In July 1867 there were two separate reports of enslaved people being freed, and one report of a Texas horse thief named Alex Simpson whose enslaved people were only freed after his hanging in 1868.

6. Freedom created other problems.

Despite the announcement, Texas slave owners weren't too eager to part with what they felt was their property. When freedpeople tried to leave, many of them were beaten, lynched, or murdered. "They would catch [freed slaves] swimming across [the] Sabine River and shoot them," a former enslaved person named Susan Merritt recalled.

7. There were limited options for celebrating.

A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
2C2KPhotography, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When freedpeople tried to celebrate the first anniversary of the announcement a year later, they were faced with a problem: Segregation laws were expanding rapidly, and there were no public places or parks they were permitted to use. So, in the 1870s, former enslaved people pooled together $800 and purchased 10 acres of land, which they deemed "Emancipation Park." It was the only public park and swimming pool in the Houston area that was open to African Americans until the 1950s.

8. Juneteenth celebrations waned for several decades.

It wasn't because people no longer wanted to celebrate freedom—but, as Slate so eloquently put it, "it's difficult to celebrate freedom when your life is defined by oppression on all sides." Juneteenth celebrations waned during the era of Jim Crow laws until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the Poor People's March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. was purposely scheduled to coincide with the date. The march brought Juneteenth back to the forefront, and when march participants took the celebrations back to their home states, the holiday was reborn.

9. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday.

Texas deemed the holiday worthy of statewide recognition in 1980, becoming the first state to do so.

10. Juneteeth is still not a federal holiday.

Though most states now officially recognize Juneteenth, it's still not a national holiday. As a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, though it didn't pass then or while he was president. One supporter of the idea is 93-year-old Opal Lee—in 2016, when she was 90, Lee began walking from state to state to draw attention to the cause.

11. The Juneteenth flag is full of symbolism.

a mock-up of the Juneteenth flag
iStock

Juneteenth flag designer L.J. Graf packed lots of meaning into her design. The colors red, white, and blue echo the American flag to symbolize that the enslaved people and their descendants were Americans. The star in the middle pays homage to Texas, while the bursting "new star" on the "horizon" of the red and blue fields represents a new freedom and a new people.

12. Juneteenth traditions vary across the U.S.

As the tradition of Juneteenth spread across the U.S., different localities put different spins on celebrations. In southern states, the holiday is traditionally celebrated with oral histories and readings, "red soda water" or strawberry soda, and barbecues. Some states serve up Marcus Garvey salad with red, green, and black beans, in honor of the black nationalist. Rodeos have become part of the tradition in the southwest, while contests, concerts, and parades are a common theme across the country.