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The Feast of the Seven Fishes (Italian: Festa dei sette pesci), also known as The Vigil (Italian: La Vigilia), is a Southern Italian and Italian-American celebration of Christmas Eve with meals of fish and other seafood.
Today, it is a feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. It originates, however, from Southern Italy, where it is known as The Vigil (La Vigilia). However, some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with nine, eleven or thirteen different seafood dishes. This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.
It is unclear when the term "Feast of the Seven Fishes" was popularized.
The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence. In this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products – on Wednesdays, Fridays and (in the Latin Church) Saturdays, as well as during Lent and on the eve of specific holy days. As no meat or butter could be used on such days, observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil.
The meal may include seven, eight, or even nine specific fishes that are considered traditional. The most famous dish Southern Italians are known for is baccalà (salted cod fish). The custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà is attributed to the greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy. Fried smelts, calamari and other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.
There are many hypotheses for what the number "7" represents. Seven is the most repeated number in the Bible and appears over 700 times.
One popular theory is the number represents completion, as shown in Genesis 2:2: "By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work." During the feast of the seven fishes, participants celebrate the completion of God's promise of the Messiah through baby Jesus.
Other theories include: that the number represents the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church; or it represents the Seven hills of Rome that surround the city. It may represent perfection (the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ).