Around a hundred years ago, immigrants escaping desperate conditions in Southern Italy came to Chicago for a better life of freedom and prosperity. They brought with them an amazing variety of foods and traditions that transformed American life forever. Even a century later, in communities from Little Italy to Elmwood Park and beyond, descendants of those courageous newcomers still hold on to some of the old ways.
One of the most beautiful and fun traditions is the Italian holiday tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, celebrated every December 24.
Although no one knows the precise origins, the feast originated in the part of Italy known for centuries as The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Starting just south of Rome and including all of southern Italy, this region featured strong and sturdy farmers making their living from the land and the sea. The people tenaciously held onto faith, love of family, and a strongly traditional way of life.
On “fast” days, such as Fridays, Catholics traditionally do not eat meat, but can consume food taken from the water. Southern Italians included Christmas Eve as a day of fast in honor of La Vigilia, which refers to waiting for the birth of Jesus, and in general, rarely wasted an opportunity to celebrate. Thus was born the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Just as Italians very loosely define fast, they also very loosely define “fish.” Many traditionalists will dredge whitefish and small fishes called smelts in a light flour coating and deep fry them. Calimari is also a favorite. As long as the food spent its entire life in the water somewhere, it can form part of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
There is also no hard and fast rule over how many courses to serve. Traditionalists will link the number of dishes with a certain number important to faith, serving as many as 13 or as few as three.
Interestingly, the tradition never caught on among the more industrial and commercial regions north of Rome. But it did follow immigrants into the industrial cities of Chicago, New York, and Baltimore as well as the heartland of Appalachian coal mining in West Virginia. One city there has even embraced the feast as a town festival, albeit on the wrong day.
Chicagoland also strongly embraces the tradition. Many Chicago area restaurants provide a special Feast of the Seven Fishes menu where for one price, a guest can sample all of the offerings.
In traditional societies where everyday life can be a struggle, gathering family and friends for celebration holds so much importance. Regardless if you enjoy a centuries old tradition or if your family has made up its own, sharing a meal cooked with love, valuing our loved ones, and enjoying their presence on the holidays is always worth celebrating no matter who you are.
Happy Holidays from our family to yours!