How a Large Italian Family Joyfully Celebrates the Feast of the Seven Fishes

Cara Cipolla Kretz, the creator of, shares the meaningful ways her family celebrates the occasion.

One of the most magical nights of the year for Italians is Christmas Eve. We come together as a family to enjoy the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Also known as La Vigilia (The Vigil), the Sicilian-American dinner features seven seafood courses. We sit down to not only eat but remember the loved ones who have passed on and celebrate the traditions passed down from generation to generation. Here are the meaningful ways my family celebrates the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

overhead shot of a decorated table with dishes from the feast of 7 fishes and Christmas decor
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Why Is the Feast of the Seven Fishes Celebrated?

Like many Italian traditions, the origin and rules are debated. Each family has its own story about why seven fishes are served. Some say it is for the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, and others say it is for the seven days it took God to create the universe. Some Italians even celebrate with 13 dishes for the 12 apostles plus Jesus. The most important aspect is that the family spends this holy holiday together, eating great food and enjoying each other's company. While this is our family tradition, each family will evolve a special tradition that is unique to them, the area of the country they live in, and their culinary tastes.

How My Family Celebrates

My mother's Christmas Eve dinner took six hours to create. A typical holiday meal would begin in the afternoon with over 20 members of our family sitting around the table. The adults would crowd around the large, beautifully decorated dining room table, plus a side table or two for the kids. Everyone pitched in to create our traditional Christmas Eve dinner. In between courses we would perform skits, sing songs, play games, and drink coffee and wine. We'd have to finish dinner by 8 p.m. to make the late mass and to give the parents time to set out Santa's gifts.

Cara Cipolla Kretz

For my mom, cooking is love and worth the extra effort.

—Cara Cipolla Kretz

There are five distinct main courses of the Feast of the Seven Fishes—antipasto platter, fish entree, pasta, main entree, vegetables, and finally dessert. And of course, there are baskets of crusty Italian bread.

In our house, the Feast of the Seven Fishes evolved into the Feast of the Five Fishes Plus Roast Beef to accommodate those who don't eat fish. My mom started the tradition by roasting a whole beef tenderloin served with Bearnaise sauce (a butter sauce similar to hollandaise). She would take orders for rare, medium-rare, medium, and well-done, and she somehow managed to accommodate everyone. It involved cutting off the ends for rare and medium-rare, and returning the center to the oven for the more well done. For her, cooking is love and worth the extra effort for her family.

The best part of the meal was the final course of desserts and coffee. The dishes are done, our bellies are full, and we can finally sit and relax. This course includes Christmas cookies made at my sister's "Cookiepalooza", an all-day family baking marathon resulting in a wide assortment of Christmas cookies, cannoli, and cheesecakes. Coffee service included espresso, cappuccinos, Turkish coffee, regular coffee, and Amaretto. We left no Italian stone unturned.

Cara Cipolla Kretz is a cookbook author and blogger at Growing up in a large Italian family, she continues the traditions and recipes she learned from her mother.

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