Seven fishes

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On Christmas eve we went to Abbraccio with some friends for the festa dei sette pesci. This was our second seven-fish feast of 2008, since some other friends had their traditionally non-traditional big-party version last Saturday.  Over the years, I've heard several different explanations for the fish and for the number, and a quick internet search turns up many other examples of the post hoc explanations that people routinely develop to give meaning to facts. But I've so far failed to find even a speculative answer to the sette pesci question that really interests me.

Here are some of the semantic speculations that are out there:

(link): Every year come December I begin to get requests for the "Seven Fishes Dinner." Requests for specific menus and the symbolisms behind the dishes; to be frank, though many parts of the Peninsula, especially in the South, celebrate Christmas Eve with a fish-based dinner, the menu's not that ridged […] I've been told that the seven course meal draws its inspiration from the Seven Virtues (faith, hope, charity, temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice), but there are also thirteen course meals that are inspired by Jesus and his 12 Apostles.

[A nice eggcorn in that one: "the menu's not that ridged", suggesting the engineering principle that folds or ridges lend stiffness to a structure.]

(link) No one knows for sure the significance for offering seven fishes, although there are numerous explanations for it. 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.

(link) Why Seven Fishes? no one actually knows why the traditional dinner, on the eve before Christmas, consists of Seven Fishes but in keeping with the heritage of the southern Italian home here are some reasons or theories.

First, one would say 'seven' stands for the Seven Sacraments and others would say its meaning goes with the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost. For others 'seven' means the Seven Hills of Rome and for another family its meaningcomes from the days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.

No matter which reason or theory you believe in, the 'Eve of Seven Fishes' was a meatless meal along the lines of meatless Fridays in accordance with the Roman Catholic beliefs for a Virgil [sic] of abstinence of show your faith in God and his teachings.

[Another lovely eggcorn: "a Virgil of abstinence" — perhaps to be followed on New Year's Eve by a wild clergy of indulgence? ]

Searching in Italian turned up some other theories, for example the Christian-fish-acronym hypothesis:

È un vero "must" tra gli Italo-Americani negli USA, e di certo le sue origini sono da ricercarsi nella tradizione tipica di molte regioni italiane di consumare una cena di magro la sera della Vigilia, portata con sé dai primi emigranti in cerca di fortuna.

Il pesce veniva celebrato come simbolo di fertilità sin dai tempi degli antichi romani e fu usato come simbolo dai primi cristiani per riconoscersi vicendevolmente durante la persecuzione perpetrata dai Romani nel loro confronti.

Questo perchè le lettere della parola pesce in greco antico, "ichthys" formavano le iniziali di "Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter", ovvero "Gesù Cristo Figlio di Dio Salvatore".

Il significato di cibarsene e però oggi pi collegato al sacrificio di non mangiare carne, facendo penitenza la sera del 24 in attesa della nascità' di Gesù il giorno dopo.

I even found some references in works of fiction, starting with Ron Liebman's "Death by Rodrigo"

Festa di Natale, we call it, begins with la vigilia, the vigil, the feast of the seven fishes. Ends in time for midnight mass. Why seven? Lucky seven? Superstition? Well, in the old country, the northern Italian people don't do this. You've got to come from Naples on down south to Sicily to do this seven-fishes thing. Do the Sicilians, the others admit that this lucky number seven's what it looks like? No way.  Ask them, they'll tell you seven fishes at dinner are because of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church: baptism, penance, Holy Eucharist, confirmation, marriage. I forget the rest, but let's stop for a moment on marriage. Something not in my cards, right? Oh yeah, there's also the seven sins: pride, envy, greed, lust, and some others. Lust would be a good one to spend some time on here too.  One sacrament not in the picture for me. One sin coming right up.

In a different vein, there's Mary Beth Caschetta's story "The Seven Sacraments", which starts like this:

Last Christmas, after Maria Salerno and I cooked a different fish for each of the seven sacraments, I started believing in God again. Maybe it was my friendship with Maria and her sister, Jannette, their loud conversations, their insistence on tradition, their cheerful faith and careful food preparation. maybe my past came back to claim me: Baptism, Confession, Eucharist, Confirmation, Ordination, Matrimony, Extreme Unction. It's hard to say for sure. I used to pretend I wasn't Italian.

The rest of the story is divided into segments corresponding to pairs of sacraments and foods: baptism (linguine with clam sauce), confession (shrimp scampi), the eucharist (garlic filet of sole over lemon risotto), confirmation (mussels in white wine), ordination (shredded ginger and scung illi salad), matrimony (clams casino), and extreme unction (lobster newberg). [The puns and metaphors (marriage is a gamble, lobster newburg is extremely unctuous) are mostly left to the reader, or perhaps are entirely unintended…]

In other fictional treatments, the Wikipedia article offers a charming (if parochial) assertion about the geography of this tradition:

There are many hypotheses for what the number "7" relates to, one being the number of Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. Another theory is that seven is a number representing 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 best seven fishes meal can be found in Holmdel, New Jersey.

I bet there's an interesting story behind that bit of Wikipediana.

But nowhere in all of this did I find what I really wanted to know, which is how far back in history the sette pesci tradition goes. Did the inhabitants of Magna Graecia celebrate the winter solstice 2,500 years ago with a feast of seven fishes? Or is this a recent development, perhaps even one that crystallized within the last century among Italian immigrants in the United States?



13 Comments

  1. Daniel said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 7:30 am

    In Norway at Christmas it is traditional to eat seven (some sources say "at least seven") types of Christmas cakes/cookies.

  2. language hat said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    Heh. I went to Wikipedia to delete the stupid statement about Holmdel and discovered someone had gotten there before me.

    I'm betting it's a recent Italian-American thing, partly on general "invention of tradition" principles and partly because of the passage you quoted above: "È un vero 'must' tra gli Italo-Americani negli USA…"

  3. Kim Belcher said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

    Interesting find. I'm not sure whether you're questioning the origin of the tradition (fish dishes and how many) or the designation (one per each of the sacraments, virtues, whatever). I'm inclined to doubt the former is of American derivation, partly because a friend of mine who spent the last few years in Asturias (and is now back in the States) described a very similar fish feasting tradition on her blog: http://laiawingsandroots.blogspot.com/2008/12/merry-christmas-to-all-and-to-all-good.html

    As for the explanations, I can tell you in Christian liturgy, as well as in ritual in general, these explanations spring up all over the place, so that if the tradition was in place, there probably were a dozen different etiologies about it within a few years (in general, these arise immediately, as soon as people have forgotten the real reason; since there was probably not ever a real reason for number of dishes in this case, they were probably virtually instantaneous). That said, I asked a scholar who has extensively studied the origins of Advent and Lent in Italy, and I'll get back if he has anything to add.

    Full disclosure, I guess: I study ritual studies and Christian worship, and have sent Mark some comments on those topics before the advent of comments on LL.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    December 26, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

    Kim Belcher: I'm not sure whether you're questioning the origin of the tradition (fish dishes and how many) or the designation (one per each of the sacraments, virtues, whatever).

    I'm curious about the origins of the Italian tradition of a meal with 7 (or 3 or 11 or 13) different kinds of fish on Christmas Eve (or some nearby occasion). When did it start, and why is is (apparently) limited to southern as opposed to northern Italy? Two sorts of explanation come to mind — one would depend on the different cultural history of that region, involving Greek and Phoenician and Byzantine colonists, the Spanish influence in later years, etc..; the other would depend on the fact that most Italian-Americans come from southern Italy.

    Relevant evidence might include similar traditions from other places (your example from Asturias is suggestive), or historical references that would help date the southern Italian tradition, for example to disprove the idea that it might actually be an Italian-American innovation.

    As for the numerological explanations, I agree with the observation that people invent that sort of thing pretty freely once there's a number to explain.

  5. Lugubert said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 4:48 am

    Daniel,

    In Sweden it's not only at Yuletide, but at any coffee party, that the ambition is (or at least used to be) to supply "seven kinds of cookies". Not too surprising, the probably most popular and widespread cookie cook book is named "Sju sorters kakor".

  6. picture of fish and salad meal | Digg hot tags said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

    […] Vote Seven fishes […]

  7. Tobia said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

    I am from Northern Italy. Before reading this post I had never heard of any festa dei sette pesci (or any other number). Out of curiosity, I asked a few southern Italian friends (from different parts of Sicily, Apulia and Campania) and they had never heard of it either. It must be an Italian-American "invention".
    Searching for it in Italian sites does not return any relevant result, apart from the site quoted above, cookaround.com, which actually points out quite clearly that Italians don't know what it is:

    Ancora ricordo il divertito stupore del giorno che la mia amica statunitense mi chiese qualche nuova ricetta per sbalordire i suoi ospiti alla "Seven Fishes Feast", la Festa dei sette pesci. Alla mia risposta che non sapevo di cosa stesse parlando, e come me tutti i miei amici e parenti italiani, lei rispose strabuzzando gli occhi ed esclamando: "Ma come, non e' la piu' importante festa che avete in Italia?".

  8. mollymooly said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    Any number below about fifteen has enough associations in religion or culture to provide plausible posthoc justifications for any tradition involving that number; just as any word with fewer than about six letters can provide any number of retrofitted acronyms as spurious etymologies.

  9. Chris said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 9:22 am

    Would it be excessively pedantic to point out that that last list contains only one actual fish? I guess "feast of four molluscs, two arthropods and a fish" isn't quite as catchy…

  10. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    Chris: "Would it be excessively pedantic to point out that that last list contains only one actual fish? I guess "feast of four molluscs, two arthropods and a fish" isn't quite as catchy…"

    Well, there's a folk category of seafood that takes in all these things, and there's some tradition for using "fish" to refer to this larger category ('fish in an extended sense', so to speak).

  11. mollymooly said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    OED sv "fish n.1":

    1. a. In popular language, any animal living exclusively in the water; primarily denoting vertebrate animals provided with fins and destitute of limbs; but extended to include various cetaceans, crustaceans, molluscs, etc. In modern scientific language (to which popular usage now tends to approximate) restricted to a class of vertebrate animals, provided with gills throughout life, and cold-blooded; the limbs, if present, are modified into fins, and supplemented by unpaired median fins.
    Except in the compound shell-fish, the word is no longer commonly applied in educated use to invertebrate animals.
    :
    4. a. The flesh of fish, esp. as used for food; opposed to flesh, i.e. the flesh of land-animals, and fowl, that of birds.

    The word "shellfish" could be construed as either a subtype of (all) fish or an analogy of (true) fish. "Seafood" was an Americanism till after long World War II.

  12. Kim Belcher said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    The use of "fish" here to include shellfish, etc, like the tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve, is, as the post implies, almost certainly influenced by Christian traditions of eating "fish" (as opposed to "meat"/"flesh" on the vigil of important feasts). The numerical "settling" (from "fish feast" to "this number of particular fish dishes") is interesting. I still haven't found or heard anything on its origins, however.

  13. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 25, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    Mightn't the senior seven be the wanderers in the sky: sun, moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn? Days of the week, after all.

    We also have seven holes in our heads, if we're lucky.

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