Christmas Eve in Italy (Vigilia di Natale in Italia)

Posted on 24 December 2009

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Christmas Eve in America is celebrated with pagan rites, Santa Clause, Reindeer, Tree trimming, and last minute shopping in preparation for the birthday of Jesus the Christ.


In Italy it is a Holy Day, celebrating the eve of the birth of Jesus.  It is called The Vigil (La Vigilia) and is celebrated as a feast day.  The Nativity is the heralding of the newborn King in Bethlehem, Judea and the story of Christmas.


In Italy, particularly Southern Italy, the celebration of La Vigilia is composed of an odd number of fish dishes, 7, 11, or 13.  For more than 1000 years during fasting periods amongst Roman Catholics, meat was forbidden, as it is for certain Lenten meals.  In place of meat, fish was substituted.  Thus, Christmas Eve represented a day of abstention from meat, and the feast of the fishes became tradition.


During the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, many Italians immigrated to America and, with them, they brought their old world customs.  The Feast of the Seven Fishes was one of them.  The number 7 represents The Seven Sacraments, 11 represents the 12 Apostles minus Judas, and 13 represents the 12 Apostles plus Jesus.  From these computations was derived the number of courses of the meal.


Over the years, the number of courses has diminished to the currently-accepted 7 fishes and pasta.  Among Italian-Americans, there is no uniformity in the way in which the meal is served and individual family traditions reign supreme.  Usually, however, the first course is Pasta with garlic and oil (Aglio Olio), which signifies the purity of the virgin birth, followed by shellfish, crustacean, squid, eel, octopus, small finfish, and large finfish.  The ritual of eating in this order signifies a progression in the nature and size of the fish consumed as one moves closer to God.


To those who live in proximity to New York City and find they would like to celebrate Christmas Eve Italian-style without all the preparation required, try visiting Mulberry Street.  Here, you can find many old world Italian restaurants that serve traditional Holiday meals.


Italian-Americans who follow this tradition relive and commemorate a time when Christmas Eve meant a gathering of one’s family – including grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – to share the joy of the Eve of the birth of our Savior.

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