Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes

On the night before Christmas in our house, strains of Louis Armstrong’s “Zat you, Santa Claus?” or Kurt Elling’s “Cool Yule” resound in the background while the smells of garlic, toasting bread crumbs, and lemon fill the air. The anticipation of the coming feast is only eclipsed by the anticipation of the following morning of ripping paper and opening presents. Italians usher in Christmas Day with ‘Cena della Vigilia’, the dinner of the vigil; the meal that breaks a daylong fast, at least in theory. Over the centuries, however, fasting obligations were relaxed, rules of abstinence from eating meat became the standard. Today, in our family, the birth of Christ is celebrated with one long, delicious (almost meatless) feast.

Dom's ancestors, the Warino (Guarino) family, originally emigrated from Calabria - a region of Puglia that borders the Adriatic Sea. There, La Vigilia means seven different kinds of seafood, cooked seven different ways. According to his Grandma, the number seven is important because it represents the seven sacraments. The number is also said to allude to the seven virtues, the seven hills of Rome, and the seven days of the week.

Romeo boys as Nativity shepherds.
After an afternoon at church, we usually start the evening at our house with champagne and raw oysters. We also put out a platter with smoked salmon and white fish with olives and crostini. It may not be exactly Italian, but everyone likes it, and it works. Fried smelts follow close behind. It depends on the year which friends and family are in attendance. Some years it is a house-full and others it is just the four of us. While I cook, friends chat in the kitchen, help set the table, or share pictures of recent travels. We have tried several different dishes over the years to comprise the seven fishes and do not always adhere to the strict interpretations that each fish must be prepared differently. Frito Misto is the perfect solution to preparing several of the fishes in our feast at one time. Gumbo is another family favorite that accommodates more than one fish. If we still need a fish to add to round out our repertoire, we add some anchovies to the pasta with olive oil, crushed red pepper and Parmesan that we serve on the side.

The custom of “La Vigilia” is revitalized whenever a new generation takes it on. We have tried to introduce the custom to our boys and family friends to keep the practice alive. As it is carried on into the future, we remember our ancestors who have added their imprint on the tradition, and it is if they are dining with us each Christmas Eve.