Monday, December 10, 2012

The Vigilia de Natale (The Feast of the Fishes)

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is one of many beloved and celebrated family traditions. In my family it was no different. The Vigilia di Natale (Vigil of the Nativity) commemorates the birth of the Baby Jesus, which is the reason for this beautiful and blessed celebration of Christmas.  It must be also noted that the feast of the fishes is not always seven, which represents the seven sacrament of the Catholic Church.   Some families prepare and served ten which represented the Stations of the Cross, or thirteen dishes on the night of the Vigilia di Natale which represents the Twelve apostles plus Jesus. The feast goes by a few different names, one of which is Festa dei Sette Pesci, ( the festivial of the Seven Fish), Cerone, (great supper) and Cena della Vigilia di Natale (the supper of the Vigial of the Nativity

The tradition of the fishes dates back to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence of eating meat or having milk products on important holy days, so the meal of choice was usually fish.  The meal menu for the feast consists of seafood and pasta.  The tradition of the fishes has been handed down in families from generation to generation, centuries old and will continue to do so, because even today families continue to value these beautiful traditions. There is no set menu for the feast, so the seafood prepared by families is usually a combination of dried salted cod, sardines, calamari, smelts, squad, eels, mussels, shrimp, oysters, clams, and scallops and many other types of fish. 


Traditions and beliefs, bind families and define them, its embedded in their DNA. Whatever beliefs and traditions families hold dear, one thing transcends all.  Which is the importance of gathering together and coming home from near and far to join  family and friends, and enjoying the beautiful season of Christmas.


The importance of these traditions was no different for my family, these were traditions that have defined my childhood.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a home in which my Mom and Nonni were both great cooks, and  as a child  I watched them with great wonder, never really understanding the knowledge given to me until I became older.  Not only was I being taught our families traditions, but I was also being given a recipe book of our families most loved and appreciated foods.  I never remember measuring cups or spoons, these foods were prepared with a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that, and yet they always tasted perfect, mouth watering and soul touching. 


The day before Christmas Eve was very important, my parents would go to the Hill (Federal Hill) and purchase fresh fish for the feast.  They would clean the Shrimp, as well as get the eels and other fish ready for this marathon cooking event.   The Cod would have been purchased and soaked for a few days before it  would be ready to cook that night. My Mother and grandmother would also make a  Linguine in red sauce, antipasto and pizza as well as many other side dishes.  Dinner lasted for many hours, and then ended with great desserts, Homemade Italian cookies, pizzelle's, panetone, and roasted chestnuts.


The aroma a the different fishes cooking as well as the red sauce filled the stairwells of our home, and its path would even be sensed in the outside area.  The excitement of Christmas as a child meant many things to me, lots of different fish dishes cooking, and a house full of family, it also meant a night of anticipation as well, because of  the arrival of Santa Claus.  Years have pasted since my childhood days, and most family members have pasted on, but memories and traditions have carried on in my heart and home, and today  I continue to preserved and carry on these traditions to my own family, in hopes that they will pass them on to theirs.


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