Feast of the Seven Fishes weaves together generations

If you aren’t of Italian descent, there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. If you are, however, there’s an even better chance you can’t imagine Christmas without it.

“This is a very important, very meaningful meal,” said John DiPippa, 61, of Little Rock. “It’s about bringing family together, about children appreciating not just the gathering but the depth of meaning behind it.

“Food is an important connection for family members and connects them across the generations.”

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, or Esta dei Sette Pesci, grew out of “ember days,” Church–prescribed days of fasting and abstinence. Originally there were just four, placed on the calendar to mark the beginning of the seasons which, some historians speculate, mimicked pagan agricultural rituals the Romans practiced to help ensure a bountiful growing season. In this way, early Church fathers may have helped converts assimilate more easily to burgeoning Christianity.

As time went on, ember days became associated with major Church feast days. In the case of Esta dei Sette Pesci, the fast lasted until the faithful received holy Communion at midnight Mass. Obviously, meat wasn’t an option on Christmas Eve, so families turned to fish and seafood. Given the celebratory atmosphere, the dinners became extravagant affairs.

“You see this kind of dinner throughout most of Italy. There are versions in other parts of Europe as well, but they aren’t as elaborate as the Italians,’” said DiPippa, dean emeritus of the Bowen School of Law of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “We do everything big.”

Even within the Italian community, regional and even household variations abound. Some families, like the DiPippa’s, stick to seven fish dishes, the number representing the seven sacraments, creation, or simply for luck. Other families serve three for the Trinity or the three wise men, or nine dishes as a multiplier of the Trinity. Still others serve 12 for the Twelve Apostles, or 11 for the Apostles less Judas and for some, 13 for the Twelve plus Jesus.

That all assumes, of course, that the number is assigned to anything at all. In a lot of houses, it’s simply one more tradition that participants observe for which the origins are hard to pin down.

“I’ve done a lot of research on this, here and in Italy,” says Italian cookbook author Michele Scicolone, in the food blog “Edible Manhattan.” “All over Italy I’d ask, ‘Do you eat the seven fish on Christmas Eve?’ and the response was always, ‘We eat a lot of fish!’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, but are there seven?’ and they’d look at me like, ‘What is she trying to say?’”

DiPippa — who in the manner of his late father John before him, does most if not all the cooking in any given year — isn’t as concerned about fitting the dinner into such narrow spaces, either. The meal is a nod to ancestral history, yes, but so are family photo albums, after all, and people don’t worry that adding new pictures invalidates the older ones.

For instance, the menu this year — as with all years — will be anchored by his father’s spaghetti and clam sauce. He knows this because to leave it out would likely trigger a palace rebellion among guests, which have numbered past 30 some years. But to say it is his father’s recipe and his father’s dish are two very different things.

“It’s impossible to duplicate, you’re tasting by memory,” he said. “Having said that, I’m fairly faithful to his recipe and I get as close as I can get.”

The food, from prep to dining, is merely the opportunity, the backdrop for what really brings everyone together; focusing too much on how a given dish stacks up against others’ misses the point, in much the same way judging an entire Christmas season by the quality of the wrapping paper misses the point.

How much better to recall what it felt like the first time you were considered adult enough to help prepare the pasta. How much more meaningful the telephone conversations, initiated to glean some cooking suggestions, DiPippa shared with his father. How much more eloquent to tell again the story of the year the lights went out, triggering a family custom of eating by candlelight.

“There were years I was really, obsessive about things,” he said. “You have to accept that tradition is not in the technique but in the meaning and the value of the activity.”

One year, his Christmas present was his family — wife Karen, director of Westside Free Medical Clinic and four sons, Joel, Andrew, Micah and Nikolai — preparing the meal for him.

Karen DiPippa, who is not Italian, remembers being introduced to the dinner as a rite of membership into the family, though truth be told, there are no strangers at a Feast of the Seven Fishes.

“I just loved it. It’s all about family; it’s all about being together,” she said. “Everybody who comes is family; even if you aren’t related, you’re family once you’re there.”

One day, it will fall to one or another of their sons to host the meal in its entirety. When that happens, signature dishes like his red, white and green cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and salmon will not taste precisely the same, nor should they. The joy lies is watching a new generation embrace the past and leave their fingerprints behind.

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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