Holiday Traditions – La Vigilia di Natale
Okay so everyone who knows me knows that the 24th is my favourite day of the year. More so than Christmas, it is filled with expectation, joy, the best food ever, and most importantly family.
I am seriously excited about being able to begin a new tradition for my children on Christmas Eve at our home. The celebration on Christmas Eve is by far the most important Christmas celebration in Southern Italy, or at least it always was with my family. The meal is a feast, in fact, it is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. While fish dishes made up the main part of the meal, a total of 13 different dishes were always included at our gatherings. The tradition has been celebrated in our family for several generations and I look forward to carrying on the feast and hope it will become a tradition my children will eventually carry on. The vigil celebration or, La Vigilia di Natale, is important because it commemorates the wait for the midnight birth of our saviour, Jesus.
Why fish? It is an old Catholic tradition. I grew up with the custom and just having accepted it as part of my faith still incorporate it in my life today. The original Roman Catholic tradition required the faithful to abstain from eating meat on Wednesdays, Fridays, Lent, and on the eve of specific holy days. My beloved grandparents, Nonno and Nannetta, ingrained these rules in me as a child. Today, I may be a little more lax on some of these traditions, but I do still refrain from eating meat on holy days.
As a child, my two favourite dishes were the deep fried salted cod, baccala, and anchovy pasta. These dishes would make my mouth water in anticipation all year, and despite the fact that we all loved them; we never ate them at any other time of the year. My dad’s family came from Southern Italy, a small town called Mendicino in the province of Calabria. Money was tight and baccala, salted cod, was not only an inexpensive fish but kept for long periods of time. I remember buying it months prior to Christmas; it was as solid as a rock. My Nannetta would soak it for three to four days, changing the water multiple times a day to rid the fish of salt.
So why seven fishes you ask? There are many hypotheses. One is that seven is the most repeated number in bible; it is reportedly mentioned 700 times. Other explanations claim that it is because God rested on the seventh day, or that it may be a reference to the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, or even the Seven Hills of Rome. Whatever the reason, or perhaps for all of these reasons, it has morphed into tradition.
This year in order to incorporate the historical and traditional aspects of the meal with dishes I want to continue to serve year after year I have developed the following menu:
- Fried baccala
- Baked Salmon with fresh herbs and lemon butter (one of my kids’ favourite)
- Anchovy fettuccine
- Smoked trout and salmon appetizers
- Shrimp cocktail
- Pickled Herring
- Pasta al forno di pesce (baked fish pasta)
In order to reach the traditional 13 we will also have
- Antipasto – roasted red pepper, artichokes, olives, fresh anise and assorted cheeses
- Escarole and arugula salad with walnuts and cranberries
- Rapini with garlic
- Steamed broccoli and cauliflower
- Homemade herb bread
- Dessert – Torrone, pannetone, scallette, pizzelle, limoncello chocolates from Italy, prickly pears, persimmons, dried figs, nuts and, of course, roasted chestnuts.
Of course there will be red wine, assorted liqueurs, espresso, eggnog, some Italian sodas, and caramel mulled apple cider with whipped cream.
This was then followed by Midnight Mass and the opening of one present before heading off to bed.
I can just see Nannetta looking down and saying “Brava”. I’ll be sure to say a special prayer her and for all of our loved ones who are with us only in spirit. I hope that they would be proud.
This is my heritage and it is one I am proud of.
Hungry now? Me? I am stuffed!