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Feast of the Seven Fishes

Feast of the Seven Fishes
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Christmas Eve belonged to Grandma. Holidays were all dealt out in our family: Thanksgiving was my mother’s; Christmas Day, Aunt Julie’s; Easter, Aunt Carol’s. But Grandma Finamore ruled on Christmas Eve, when we were to arrive in time to sit down at 6 o’clock for her feast of the seven fishes.

If my grandfather, who died before I was born, had not insisted that his would be an American family, we would have called the meal la Cena della Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve dinner). But none of us learned Italian.

We all knew, however, that this was the day when Grandma was at her most Italian, most traditional, and most demanding. Somehow, luck was involved in what you ate, and we all had to eat certain dishes or else something dire would happen. (The dire thing was that Grandma wouldn’t bring out the pizzas, which all the kids craved and would have eaten before anything else on the table.)

There were always seven fishes. My first memories of this meal date back to the very early 1960s. I understood meatless Fridays in our Catholic household. Naturally, we ate fish on those days, but Grandma was always vague about why she served seven kinds on this special occasion. “It’s an important number” was about as far as she would go. (Surprising, since she was always ready to make up stories. She claimed to be 5-foot-2 when we all knew she was 4-foot-11.)

I’ve since learned of countless possible explanations for the seven fishes. Here are some, in no particular order: the seven holy martyrs, the seven deadly sins, the seven joys or sorrows of Mary, the seven sacraments, the seven hills of Rome, the seven “O” antiphons from the vespers of the octave preceding Christmas (December 17-23), the seven days of the week, the 52 weeks of the year (5 and 2 make seven).

For me, the most important thing was the meal, not the symbolism. With Grandma at the helm, it was a big, sloppy, joyous family affair. After she dished out what we had to eat and watched to make sure every plate was clean, she’d bring out the rest of the food and serve it family style.

Chaos reigned. Hands grabbed for bowls of pasta with anchovies or Grandma’s mackerel (she knew we all loved that) or the escarole and spinach or mushrooms that had the zing of hot cherry peppers. Kids would announce the number of slices of pizza they had so far devoured. Some years there would be eel; other years, stuffed squid, and the expected cousins made the expected squeals. I ate everything.

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