In Italy, whether spent with family, friends or romantically by candlelight, the main reason for having a Christmas Eve dinner at home is to cook, eat and have a merry good time. In the USA, this is known also as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but do you know why?
Especially in the central and southern part of Italy, tradition wants the Christmas Eve dinner to be "lean" because it is the eve of the birth of Jesus. In medieval times, the Roman Catholic faith started observing any eve before a major church celebration with a vigil, a time of fast, abstinence and prayer. And while any meat and animal fat were never allowed until the next day, fish and olive oil were, therefore people started eating fried fish for Christmas Eve.
Eventually, after the end of the dark ages, a more rich and festive tone was given to the light dinner and, according to local culinary traditions, different fish and seafood recipes were created for the occasion. While sardines and baccalà, dry salted cod, were mainly used by common people, wealthier families would prepare an abundance of fish and serve it in up to seven, twelve and even thirteen different styles. But, why? Numbers have powerful symbology in any religion; in this case, seven represents the number of the Catholic sacraments, twelve the number of the apostles who, together with Jesus, made a table of thirteen at the last supper.
Up to these days, an Italian Christmas Eve dinner is still an important family affair; it is never served before 8 or 9 pm and the many courses are enjoyed slowly, one after another, giving people plenty of time for toasts, playful chatting and fun until midnight. All starts with one or more antipasto dishes, like fried calamari or a cold seafood salad; then there is a first course of seafood over pasta or risotto (or both, but always in small servings). Among other dishes, the second course can include fried eel, fried cod, stewed baccalà or zuppa di pesce, literally a “fish soup” but technically a stew with different types of fish and shell fish, cooked in a light tomato sauce. Fried cauliflowers, artichokes and fennel salad are used as side dishes in Rome, while in Naples they serve a salad made with cauliflower, different pickles and anchovies, called insalata di rinforzo, to re-enforce the lean dinner.
Desserts are always scrumptious and include different traditional dolci, such as Panettone, Pandoro, Struffoli, Zeppole, assorted fruit and nuts and even nougats. People like to enjoy these by slowly nibbling on them through the last part of the evening, maybe while playing cards or other games. At midnight, many Italians attend the traditional Christmas Eve mass; others simply uncover a small baby Jesus figurine in the manger of their Presepe, the home Nativity scene, and pray. After, all will have a last celebratory toast with a bubbly Spumante or Prosecco and then open the presents.
Whatever your family tradition might be, below is my Christmas Eve dinner menu, with a personal wish for you to enjoy all the Holidays making great memories with all your love ones.
Risotto alla Pescatora
Spaghetti all’Aragosta (Lobster Spaghetti)
Stewed Baccalà with Potatoes and Black Olives
Fennel Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Panettone and Zeppole
Fresh fruit and assorted nuts
Pinot Grigio and Prosecco