Feast of the Seven Fishes – La Vigilia

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?