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How to Celebrate Feast of the Seven Fishes

By Annie Petito Published

If you’re a seafood lover, or just want to try something different this year, celebrate Christmas Eve with one of the most iconic Italian holiday traditions.

Meals during the holiday season are typically dominated by hearty meats and roasted birds, so seafood can be a refreshing option. And what better way to showcase seafood than with a Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Southern Italian (and Italian American) Christmas Eve custom that features at least seven different types of fish and shellfish.

ORIGINS OF THE FEAST

Eating seafood on Christmas Eve comes from the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat before holy days. Historically, fish was considered magro (“thin” in Italian) and most suitable for the poor, whereas meat was a luxury enjoyed by the wealthy.

Though this tradition is celebrated all over Italy, its origins are in southern Italy where, along the coast, seafood was most bountiful. The custom was brought to United States likely between 1880 and 1924, when over 4 million Italians, primarily from southern Italy and Sicily, immigrated here. Today, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is as beloved by Italian Americans as it is by families in Italy. 

Some Italian cooks are completely unfamiliar with the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” That’s because, depending on where they grew up, the tradition might go by another name—La Vigilia (The Vigil), or simply, Christmas Eve dinner.

Despite the feast’s popularity, the origin of the number “seven” still remains a bit of a mystery. Some theories hold that it was derived from the seven sacraments. Others attribute the number to the seven cardinal virtues or to the seven days of the week. Today, some families set a different number all together—in some cases an ambitious 12 (possibly for the 12 apostles). In other households, there's less of an emphasis on the number of different types of fish served and more focus on the overall abundance of the meal, which is typically an almost unending feast, not only of seafood but of fried vegetables such as artichokes, potatoes, and squash blossoms.

Ultimately, whether you’re Italian, Italian American, or just a pesce lover, what’s truly important is that seafood is prepared, shared, and enjoyed on Christmas Eve with the people that you care about.

If you want to prepare your own feast of the fishes, the only rule is to skip the meat. Otherwise, anything goes. If you’re feeling ambitious, cook seven courses, or, if not, put lots of seafood into a single dish. There’s so much flexibility and the potential combinations are endless.

TIPS AND TECHNIQUES

Follow these links for advice on how to shop for, store, and prepare the fish and seafood you'll be serving at your feast:

STARTERS

Recipe Fried Calamari

Squid is inexpensive, requires almost no prep, and cooks in minutes. In other words—it's perfect for starting off a Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Recipe Cóctel de Camarón (Mexican Shrimp Cocktail)

Dishes served at a Seven Fishes feast don't need to be Italian—or even Italian American. This variation on shrimp cocktail consists of cooked shrimp tossed with chopped vegetables in a bright tomato sauce.

Recipe Caesar Salad

Even the anchovy-inflected dressing in this classic salad counts as a fish dish during this feast. In our version, we use six of these salty cured fish mashed to a paste. 

PASTA DISHES

Recipe Linguine with Seafood (Linguine allo Scoglio)

Featuring five different types of seafood, this one dish will almost get you to the finish line if you include it in your Seven Fishes celebration.

Recipe Spanish-Style Toasted Pasta with Shrimp and Clams

Traditional recipes for fideuà can take several hours to prepare. Our streamlined version will leave you time to add another seafood dish or two to your feast.  

MAIN DISHES

Recipe Roasted Whole Side of Salmon

A whole roasted side of salmon is an easy yet impressive way to feed a crowd at your feast. For salmon that was silky throughout and evenly browned across its surface, we salted it for an hour, which helped the flesh retain moisture and protein (which would otherwise seep out unattractively during roasting).

Recipe Sous Vide Butter Poached Lobster Tail

If you're serving a smaller gathering at your Seven Fishes celebration, make it a little luxurious with lobster. Using sous vide and frozen lobster tails make this dish easy to prepare with excellent results. 

Recipe Brazilian Shrimp and Fish Stew (Moqueca)

This coconut milk–based stew has such big flavor yet comes together so quickly that it sounded too good to be true—until we made it for ourselves. It's perfect for this celebration.

Recipe Poached Fish Fillets with Sherry-Tomato Vinaigrette

This restaurant-style dish delivers super-moist, delicately cooked fish that will be the highlight of any Feast of the Seven Fishes. 

DESSERTS

You can’t skip dessert. Pick up some cannoli or serve sweets that can be made ahead and will satisfy without being too heavy, such as the ones below:

Recipe Lemon Posset with Berries

This classic English specialty transforms cream, sugar, and lemon into a lush pudding with clear citrus flavor. It’s the easiest dessert you’ve never made.

Recipe Anise Biscotti

Italians like these cookies dry and hard, while American versions are buttery and more tender. We wanted something in between—that is, crisp but not tooth shattering.

Recipe Baci di Dama (Italian Hazelnut Cookies)

These Lilliputian Italian hazelnut-chocolate sandwich cookies are utterly charming—but only if they're perfect. Our approach makes it easy to get them just right.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.