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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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How Gangsters and the Media Helped Make Trick or Treating a Halloween Tradition

Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

On Halloween night in 1934, a scene played out in Helena, Montana, that the local newspaper, the Helena Independent, related as though it were a scene out of a mafia confrontation [PDF]. A group of teenagers roughly 15 to 16 years old knocked on a woman’s door and asserted they were there for the purposes of trick or treating. When the woman refused their request, they opted for a third outcome—property damage. The kids smashed her birdbath.

The paper identified the group’s “leader” as “Pretty Boy” John Doe, a nod to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a notorious gangster who had been killed in a police shootout just two weeks before. In media and in the minds of kids, the then-novel practice of trick or treating on Halloween was not quite innocent fun. It was emblematic of the public’s infatuation with civil disobedience and organized crime, and it would take no lesser positive influences than Donald Duck and Charlie Brown to make adults believe Halloween wasn’t merely a training ground for America’s youth to become hoodlums.

 

Trick or treating is a relatively new phenomenon in North America. The concept of going door to door and requesting candy on Halloween was virtually unheard-of prior to the 1920s, though it did have antecedents in ancient history. In the Middle Ages, following the Catholic Church’s re-appropriation of Celtic celebrations, kids would dress as saints, angels, and demons in what was known as “guising,” from “disguising.” These cloaked figures would go from one door to the next, requesting food or money in exchange for singing their benefactors a song or praying. This solicitation was known as “souling,” and children and poor adults who engaged in it were known as “soulers.”

Scottish and Irish immigrants likely brought guising over to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Around the same time, kids were in the habit of dressing up for other holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, and requesting money. When costumed events for Halloween became more prevalent and citywide celebrations were organized to help discourage kids from playing pranks, private groups began planning door-to-door visits in the 1920s. That’s when the disparate elements of costumes, mild pranks like ringing a doorbell and then running off, and getting treats all converged, seemingly taking a more sinister turn.

Early trick or treating was serious business.Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Writing in the American Journal of Play in 2011 [PDF], author Samira Kawash took a closer look at the rise in popularity of trick or treating and the seeming glorification of organized crime figures during the economically turbulent period of the 1930s. It’s little coincidence, Kawash wrote, that kids began to approach trick or treating as a form of extortion just as antiheroes achieved infamy in newspapers. The media reflected this influence, often writing of pranks in breathless terms. The threat of soaping windows if targets didn’t pay up in the form of treats was nothing more than a juvenile version of a mobster offering “protection” to a shopkeeper. Demands for candy could be considered a “shakedown.” The treats were “edible plunder.” Roving groups of costumed kids were “goon squads.” Some kids even bypassed requests for candy and demanded money instead.

In some parts of the country, the idea of making a choice between handing out food or suffering from a “trick” was new. In Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1938, a group of young boys told local police chief Paul Acton about their success. “We knock on the door,” one said, “and ask if they’d rather give us a treat, or have us dump over the garbage pail. Boy, have we been eating!”

The media took a critical approach to this new tradition, warning readers that such activities could be creating the criminals of tomorrow. Not everyone responded kindly to it, either. In Brooklyn, a school principal responded to a trick or treat offer by slapping a child across the face after he was admonished by a tyke to “hand it over or else.” Trick or treating had morphed from a pitiable request for charity to a sneering threat of property destruction in lieu of a candy bar.

 

Trick or treating began to lose some of its edge during World War II, when sugar rationing disrupted the entire concept of Halloween and vandalizing homes seemed especially cruel considering the global threat to democracy. In Reno, Nevada, in 1942, a school superintendent named E.O. Vaughn told principals and teachers to caution kids against knocking on doors, both because of the war and because it had a “tinge of gangsterism.” By the time candy had resumed normal production and the nation was no longer mired in war or a financial crisis, it had settled into something mostly innocent. (But not totally without mischief. In 1948, local police in Dunkirk, New York, advised adults to phone them when a group of kids was spotted so cops could “round up the children.”)

By the 1950s, trick or treating was less about property damage and more about having fun with friends.Joe Clark, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Helping restore the reputation of trick or treating were two familiar icons in popular culture. In 1951, Charles Schulz drew a series of Peanuts comic strips that featured Charlie Brown and his friends going door to door. (Peppermint Patty uses Charlie Brown’s head as inspiration for her pumpkin carving.) The strip, read by millions of people daily, normalized the practice. So did Trick or Treat, a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon that was released theatrically and featured Donald caught in a battle of tricks with nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

Further legitimizing the practice of demanding treats was the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or UNICEF, which provided boxes for kids to collect their sugary bounty as well as request spare change. The effort eventually raised $175 million and returned trick or treating to its more charitable origins.

Although Halloween has settled into a widely understood arrangement in which candy is distributed without any overt threat of birdbath-bashing, not everyone has abandoned the brute force aspects of the 1930s. According to data compiled by GateHouse Media and taken from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, there were 19,900 acts of vandalism on October 31 over a 10-year period from 2009 to 2018. Only New Year’s Day was more eventful, with 21,000 acts committed in the same timeframe. For many, Halloween is a time to collect treats. For others, it remains the season for tricks.