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).
The novel Angelina's Bachelors – A Novel with Food (2011; ISBN 978-1-4516-2056-6) by Brian O'Reilly contains a description of a gourmet Feast of the Seven Fishes, including recipes for eel over arborio rice and Caesar salad with batter-dipped smelts.
^ abcdMelissa Clark (16 December 2013). "Surf’s Up on Christmas Eve. Feasting on Fish to the Seventh Degree". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-30. "It's a Southern Italian (and now Italian-American) custom in which a grand meal of at least seven different kinds of seafood is served before midnight Mass. The fish part comes from the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve, while the number may refer to the seven sacraments."
^ abcCraig Claiborne (16 December 1987). "A Seven-Course Feast of Fish". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-30. "It is a Christmas Eve ritual handed down from mother to son. Every year, Ed Giobbi, the artist and cookbook author, serves a holiday feast of seven fish dishes (seven for the seven sacraments). Each dish is cooked in a different manner -broiled, fried, baked and so on - or uses a different main ingredient. There is generally a fish or seafood salad and, inevitably, pasta served with a seafood sauce. ..."