This year was the 6th time Fairmont, WV publically celebrated the classic Italian Christmas Eve tradition, the Feast of the Seven Fishes, with a local festival of the same name. At the December 10 event, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant presented Robert Tinnell with Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s Recognition of Honor for Tinnell’s efforts in authoring a Feast of the Seven Fishes book and, as a result of its success, spearheading the development of Fairmont’s festival.
This southern Italian feast is traditionally celebrated on Christmas Eve. It stems from the observance of the Cena della Vigilia, the wait for the miraculous birth of Christ in which early Christians fasted on Christmas Eve until after receiving communion at Midnight Mass. At one time, Rome was the farthest point north where ‘La Vigilia’ was celebrated, but today Italians throughout the world celebrate it.
“When I was kid, eating fish on Christmas Eve was just something you did,” says Tinnell. “We never called it by name. I never even bothered to question why we did it, especially as I had not been raised Catholic. All I knew was that December 24th meant a delicious meal of exotic foods, cooked up by my ancient great-grandmother, Isabella Oliverio, on her wood-fired stove in the basement of her modest home in Rivesville, WV.”
At least 11 percent of the population of Harrison, Marion, and Monongalia counties has Italian ancestry. The larger communities are in the vicinity of Clarksburg, Fairmont, and Morgantown respectively. Many Italians originally immigrated to West Virginia in the early twentieth century to work in the coal mines throughout the state.
Specialty glass factories in this region were largely an Italian immigrant industry with factories in Fairmont, Mannington, and Clarksburg. Italian stonemasons were also common in the early communities. So ‘La Vigilia’ clearly has an established place among West Virginia Christmas traditions.
Why seven types of fish for this Christmas feast? Some believe that seven fishes are served because it took God seven days to create the world, while others mention the Seven Hills of Rome. There is also the possibility that the seven fishes symbolize the seven sacraments in the Catholic Church, along with the seven sins, or the seven days it took Mary and Joseph to reach Bethlehem, or the seven of the twelve Apostles who were fishermen. Some say it is because it took God seven days to create the universe.
Some regions of Italy require three courses (the Trinity or three Wise Men), nine courses (the Trinity times three), twelve courses (the Apostles), thirteen courses (the Apostles, plus Jesus), or even 25 courses(for the days in the Christmas season).
The origins vary, depending on who you ask, but quite clearly, you did not eat meat on Christmas Eve since it was the birth of Jesus, and just as you would not eat meat on Good Friday, you would not eat meat on Christmas Eve. As midnight brings Christmas day, that is when you would start cooking the sausage for Christmas Dinner, and often the eating would go on until the late/early morning hours.
The people from Naples are famous for their elaborate spreads of cold shellfish cocktails and hot fish dishes, as well as the roasted peppers and antipasti. In most of the southern coastal regions in Italy and Sicily, seafood was abundant and so offered the perfect opportunity to work fish into the menu for this festive day.
Two fish most traditionally found on Christmas Eve menus across Italy are baccalà (salted cod) and anguilla (eel). Other popular fishes that are eaten on this special holiday are prepared versions of calamari, kale patties, oysters, scallops, whiting, clams, and shrimp. At the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the meal usually begins with antipasto, the Italian equivalent of hors d’oeuvres. This can include a variety of cold foods such as cheeses and raw or marinated vegetables.
The meal ends with any number of delectable desserts. One that is almost always present is panettone, the famous sweet cake-like Christmas bread that is eaten during the Christmas holidays.