Although many of you may be aware that Harbor Fish Market is a small, family owned business
in Portland, Maine, you may not be aware that we are an Italian family. We are proud of our
heritage and the sharing of our love of food (specifically seafood, of course) is enmeshed with
our Italian roots.
To an Italian, the holiday season—even more specifically, Christmas Eve—means one thing, the
feast of the seven fishes. Each year many Italian-Americans celebrate this seafood-filled holiday
on the 24 th of December. Typically, this means that the family gathers around a feast of seven
different seafood dishes. It can also refer to 1 or 2 different types of fish, cooked seven different
Although this holiday is popular among Italian-Americans, many Italians do not know its origin,
or even that it exists! This won’t be surprising to anyone familiar with Italy, however, as it’s
such a culturally diverse country. There’s a different set of traditions at practically every exit on
the autostrada. Italy has 20 different regions, each equipped with their own traditions for the
holidays. In Rome, Christmas Eve is celebrated with minestra di pesce, which is a fish-based
soup. In Sardegna, they celebrate with malloreddus (you know it as gnocchi) with tuna and
cherry tomatoes. In Piedmont, their tradition calls for agnolotti, a meat-based pasta dish. The
feast of seven fishes, or what they call La Vigilia, is most prominent in the south, areas such as
Naples and Sicily.
The tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve comes from the Roman Catholic custom of
abstaining from meat and dairy on Friday to honor the sacrifice of Jesus. But why seven fishes?
There are plenty of theories behind the use of the number 7. Some of these include the seven
Catholic sacraments, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Seven Hills of Rome, the seven
deadly sins, or the seven days it took Jesus and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. Some observers
go above and beyond 7 seafood dishes, but even then the majority stick to an odd number, as
it is considered lucky in Italy. Some prepare 9 seafood dishes for the trinity triples, or 13 for
the 12 apostles plus Jesus Christ, and some even go as far as 21 different fish dishes, which
equates to the seven sacraments, multiplied by the trinity. We enjoy sticking to 7.
In addition, there really is no agreement as to which types of fish must be used. Some say it is
not La Vigilia without baccala (salt cod). In Italy, eel is frequently used, as it is a symbol of
wealth. Another popular choice in Italy is scungilli, also known as whelk or conch. We
believe the choice is yours to make. More popular options include calamari, smelt, anchovies,
shrimp, squid, clams, lobster, salmon, scallops and swordfish. We think part of the fun is
choosing 7 different options that you and your family will enjoy most!
To celebrate this “old country” tradition, we will be serving up 7 different fish dishes,
complete with DIY video recipes, and recipe cards, from now to Christmas Eve. We hope you
will join us in this tradition (Italian or not!) as it’s a very fun part of our family’s celebration
each year. Plus, who doesn’t want to have an excuse to eat copious amounts of seafood on
Christmas eve? Stay tuned!