Feast of the Seven Fishes – La Vigilia

by Grace Boyle on December 24, 2010

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Each year, my family and I trek out East to West Virginia where hundreds of our Italian relatives on my mother’s side of the family, reside. They immigrated from southern Italy in Calabria (the toe of the boot) to work on the railroads and mines. The similar hilly countryside of West Virginia reminded them of Calabria.

To this day, Clarksburg, West Virginia has an extremely large Italian population and their Italian Heritage Festival is in the top four best Italian festivals in the country and is rated one of the “Top 100 Events in North America” including Canada and Italy.

My maternal Grandmother’s family is Vallelonga and my paternal Grandfather’s family is Spatafore – both from Calabria.

On Christmas Eve (la vigilia), we celebrate The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci).

My Nunnie (Grandmother) and Popo (Grandfather) get up early and head to our late, Nunnie and Popo ‘Longi’s (Vallelonga) home. Although my Great-Grandparents are no longer alive, my Great Uncle Danny still lives in their home, carrying on the tradition. With the eight brothers and sisters, my Nunnnie cooks and prepares the fish early in the morning for our feast.

The photos below show the grandparents, brothers and sisters who are resting after cooking the feast and awaiting for everyone to arrive.

In true Italian fashion, there’s a kitchen upstairs and in the side basement. We need two stoves and one of them has 6 burners.

The house is steaming with warmth, children are running around, water is boiling, fried fish permeates the air and all the burners are aflame.

This year, we had 40 of us crammed in sharing food, drinking, laughing and catching up. We always take a group photo – can you imagine little babies who are newborns up to 80 year-olds all yelling, their hands in the air, squirming around, laughing and calling out instructions?

This traditional feast is common in Southern Italy. The origin seems to come from a few varying religious perspectives. A few are: Jesus and his disciples (if you serve 13 fishes) or the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Below is our menu – fish will vary by family and tradition, sometimes more than seven fish are served:

Baccalà (dried and salted cod). We soak the baccalà in water for two days before the feast even begins. Smelt, Sardines, Oysters, Whiting, Breaded Shrimp and Clams.

In addition to fish we have spaghetti, homemade spaghetti sauce, meatballs, salad and vegetables.

Italian dessert of pita piata (think Italian cinnamon rolls) and a Christmas drink of gin, grenadine, water and orange.

I hope everyone has a safe Christmas Eve and Christmas – spent with loved ones and filled with gratitude. Buon Natale!

Note: For recipes of these dishes, I really like Mario Batali’s Feast of the Seven Fishes on Epicurious.

How do you and your family celebrate the holidays?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

POPO AND NUNNIE SPATAFORE December 27, 2010 at 2:28 pm



grace December 27, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Thanks Nunnie and Popo! I love you both very much and you’re all the inspiration between our wonderful Christmas Eve celebrations.


doniree - the nomadic foodie December 28, 2010 at 11:11 am

Hi. I’m coming with you next year. That looks amazing!


grace December 28, 2010 at 11:12 am

I know, so much fish (can you imagine how the house smelled)? 😉

We always have new friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, husbands, etc. come each year. The more the merrier, hey, we’re ITALIAN!


Carol Lafferty December 29, 2010 at 6:50 pm

I love the pictures Grace! Good job. Thank you for posting this. Can’t wait to show it at work. I love our Christmas at Uncle Danny’s, seeing our family and having fun. It’s so true that each year we have new people. When you look back at previous years, it’s hard to believe how many are gone. I really love that you are preserving the memories.


grace December 29, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Glad to hear you like it 🙂 It’s fun to preserve it and write it down each time. So good seeing you xo


Jenn Sutherland December 30, 2010 at 7:41 am

What a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays – thanks for sharing your traditions and beautiful family with us! Wish we all could have piled into your great greandparents’ home for the feast!


Grace Boyle December 30, 2010 at 11:07 am

You’re welcome, thank you for checking it out and enjoying it! You’re welcome anytime 😉


Tony Marra January 2, 2011 at 8:23 pm

I don’t know Grace…but the Vallelonga”s are first cousins to my wife Rose (maiden name ..Lopez)..Rose was also born in Ida May, W.Va.
I was born in Clarksburg 11-2-24…My parents came to Clarksburg from Galabria.
We lived at 711 Clarks street..next door to the Oliverio’s..Some of our cousins were the Tiano’s, Mancina’s , Yaquinto’s..My dad worked in the coal mines..we moved to Detroit, Mi…in 1929…We still celebrate as mentioned above, includiing the food.
Thanks for the memories…Have a Happy New Year..
Antonio Terrenzio Marra…My father and Mother’s name was..Frank and Sarafina.


grace January 2, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Hi Tony – there are so many similar Italian names. It looks my Nunnie Vallelonga is cousins with your wife. I’m having my mom check it out since the Clarksburg, Calabria and even Detroit connection sounds all too familiar. You know how Italians can be! Glad this sparked great memories for you. Happy New Year and thank you for stopping by!


jacqueline January 3, 2011 at 6:03 am

amazing! looks so fun! i’m with doni.. count me in next year 😉


Grace Boyle January 3, 2011 at 8:55 am

It is quite the feast of fun 🙂 Thanks Jacq!


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