When I was a kid I was under the mistaken impression that our local Italian Heritage Festival (celebrated each Labor Day Weekend for four decades) was one of a kind, the only such celebration in the entire country. I’m not sure where I got that idea, but as an adult I learned that not only are there other Italian Festivals, but apparently some are bigger & better than ours. Ah well…so be it. At any rate, a couple of years ago our festival premiered a rom-com called Feast of the Seven Fishes, which was filmed locally just a few miles up the road. I was unable to attend the showing for reasons I won’t bore you with, but recently I found the movie on Netflix, and while it doesn’t exactly mirror my childhood experience it hit enough of the right beats to make me just a bit wistful.
My father always called Christmas Eve one of the biggest nights of the year in the Italian culture. My great-grandparents emigrated (separately) from San Giovanni i Fiore in the southern Italian region of Calabria and settled here in northcentral West Virginia. They had a dozen children, all of whom are gone now, but their descendants continued the Italian Christmas Eve tradition.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a celebration commemorating the wait…Vigilia di Natale…for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. It was introduced in the United States by Southern Italian immigrants in New York City in the late 1800s. Eating seafood on Christmas Eve comes from the Catholic practice of abstaining from eating meat on the eve of a feast day. Since no meat or animal fat can be used on such day Catholics instead eat fish (typically fried in oil). The seven fishes allegedly represent different things, depending on which source one believes…the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, the seven days of Creation, etc. Seven is an important number in The Bible for multiple reasons. Having said that, the truth is that most Italian-American families deviate from the formula in one way or another…some serve more than seven seafood dishes, while others serve less.
Now here is where it gets weird…my family isn’t Catholic. I am sure my great grandparents were, and some of my extended family still are. However, my paternal grandmother wasn’t Italian, and it was she (along with several of my great aunts who married into the family) that was the churchgoer. Back in the day when she & my Papaw got married our small town had only one church and it was United Methodist. Nowadays the trek into the city where there are multiple Catholic churches is about five miles…a ten minute drive. But for Grandma and the rest of the family a century ago it was quite a trip, so it was just easier to go to the church right down the street. When my parents got married my mother started attending the same United Methodist Church, and several of my cousins did the same. I’m still related to half the congregation, which makes it extremely difficult to meet a woman.
At any rate, our Christmas Eve fishfest always started in mid-afternoon, and we didn’t get home until close to midnight. My grandparents lived about a mile away in a cozy coal company house because Papaw and his brothers were miners. The cooking was done in the kitchen, but there was a small dining room where we ate. Well…where the adults ate. There wasn’t enough room for everybody at the big table, so there was a kids’ table in the kitchen. My grandparents had to put picnic benches around their table to accommodate everyone because they didn’t have enough chairs…sitting in the living room and eating while watching TV simply wasn’t done back then. As a child my most fervent wish was to eat at the big table with the adults, and when I finally achieved that goal as a teenager it was a proud moment. I don’t recall everything that was on the menu, but we always had fried (breaded) oysters, calamari (squid), whiting, and baccala (salt cod…not to be confused with the Greek dessert baklava). There were meatballs and mashed potatoes as well, and my mother always made a big salad with all kinds of meat & cheese (topped with Italian dressing of course). For dessert we always had German chocolate cake (made from scratch) and my grandmother’s homemade pita piata, which is an Italian nut roll made with raisins, lots of spices, and I’m pretty sure some sort of booze is in the recipe as well. The German chocolate cake confused me as a child because we were Italian. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that it’s a specific type of chocolate.
Now you’d think that the food would be the highlight of this extravaganza, but you’d be wrong. My father has told me over & over for decades that nothing is more important than family, and nothing drove that point home more than Christmas Eve. There were so many people packed into that little house. My great aunt lived right next door, and at some point in the evening her kids & grandkids would come over to visit us, and vice versa. Another great aunt lived just up the road, and oftentimes we’d visit that house as well. My maternal grandmother was widowed, so my paternal grandparents were kind enough to include her in our celebration, and only now can I truly appreciate how generous that was. She was our family, so she was family to them too. My grandfather, uncles, cousins, and father would all gather around the table after dinner and play poker, and another rite of passage for me came when I was finally allowed to participate in that game…it made me feel all manly & tough. More than any piece of fish or slice of cake that’s what I miss the most…having all of those important people in my life gathered together in one house enjoying each other’s company…talking, laughing, embracing. I wish I had a bunch of pictures & video of all of those Christmas Eves, but I don’t.
At some point when I was in high school or college (my memory is a bit fuzzy) the Christmas Eve fishfest was moved to my aunt’s house. It was still great, but lost a little pizazz since those other households weren’t next door or just up the holler (yes…my grandparents and much of the extended family lived in a holler…and it was a magical place, a great neighborhood). Still, the evening was always fun. But then we started losing people…my Uncle Peck, my little cousin Levi, my second cousin Jimmy, my mother, my Papaw Jim, my Grandma Pigott, my Grandma Mano. We soldiered on until 2019, when my aunt was just too ill to continue.
So now I spend my Christmas Eve at home by myself. No oysters, baccala, or German chocolate cake, but more importantly no mother or grandparents. In a perfect world I would have married and continued the tradition with my own children, inviting my Dad, sister, and nephews to celebrate at my house. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, that natural order of continuation hasn’t come to pass, and in a year of isolation due to the global pandemic and my own health issues I am feeling nostalgic. When I watched the Feast of the Seven Fishes film I must admit that it had me a bit verklempt. The 20-something main character has a meet-cute with a pretty girl and invites her to his family’s fishfest, and I can imagine a sequel wherein three decades later they are married and celebrating Christmas Eve with their children & grandchildren. Perhaps someday one of my nephews will marry and we’ll have some vague facsimile of The Feast at their house. I can be the crazy uncle to their bambinos and get to enjoy Christmas again thru children’s eyes, which is the way it is supposed to be. Above & beyond my own desires I want that for my father. As much as I miss our tradition I know it is an even bigger void in his life (although he’d never admit it), and I’d love to see him enjoy another Christmas Eve surrounded by love, laughter, food, & fellowship. Until then I have my memories, and I am so damn thankful for a family that always made the holiday so special. I miss them, but understand how blessed I was to have them in the first place.
Merry Christmas Manoverse. I hope now more than ever we all appreciate what is really important. Gifts are nice. Lights are pretty. Music & movies have the ability to touch our soul. Food keeps us alive and is a pleasantly tasty experience. But nothing is more important than family, so hug your spouse, smother the little ones in your life with kisses, appreciate your grandparents while they are still around, enjoy your aunts, uncles, cousins, and whoever else you consider La Famiglia. Take pictures & video. Capture those memories. Decades from now you’ll be glad you did. Viva bene, spesso l’amore, di risata molto. And never forget the true reason for the season…the birth of our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ.