In Italian Catholic homes, Christmas Eve is a much bigger event than anything following it. Christmas breakfasts and dinners are feasts, to be sure, but they are not as formal or festive or sacred as Christmas Eve dinner.
If you are not an Italian Catholic and have ever wondered what it was all about, here is a bit of insight.
In my home, Christmas Eve began around 3 pm. We would all gather in my grandmother’s home – cousins, aunts, uncles, the occasional distant relative – and drink homemade wine until dinner time, usually between 5 and 7 pm.
At that time, the TV would go off and everyone would gather at their requisite tables – the adults at a long banquet table, handmade by my grandfather, and the kids at an adjoining round table. We were then served the meal to end all meals, painstakingly prepared for weeks ahead of time by my tireless grandmother.
The real star of the show was a calamari and pasta dish, but it was preceded by tortellini en brodo, a simple pasta soup, and followed by baccala (salted cod), vegetables, salad and home baked bread.
Dessert was, of course, a whole other level of delicious (and a topic for another blog)! We would wait an hour or so after eating for desert and coffee, then proceed to our closest aunt’s house for more cookies and a small gift exchange. There we would linger, watch TV or play board games until it was time to leave for midnight Mass.
Christmas day, by contrast, was much more low-key. We would wait for everyone to wake up, open gifts, then have a homemade brunch of cinnamon rolls, eggs and bacon, coffee and mimosas. The remainder of the day was free time until dinner, which was usually a simple meat dish with a salad. This was a ritual we participated in for many years, and it was a wonderful way to celebrate.
I never stopped to think about why we always ate fish, or why it was significant that we did. I later found out that non-Italians have developed quite a mythology about the Italian Christmas Eve Dinner, and after a few discoveries, became fascinated with the whole ritual.
I’d found out that both Italians and Sicilians (make no mistake, they are two distinctly different groups of people) celebrate the traditional Catholic “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” which was historically served after a 24-hour fasting period.
Although pre-Christmas fasting is no longer practiced and certainly no one I knew fasted, it seemed quite common among recent immigrants. Nevertheless, Italian-Americans still enjoy meatless a Christmas Eve in reverence to our Lord. It is all in part of the Vigilia di Natale, the vigil for the birth of Jesus.
Although my family never made seven different fish, it is common practice. We served only the calamari and baccala, but many other Italians serve any combination of octopus, eel, anchovies, sardines, mussels, clams, smelts or other seafood.
The number seven, as many Catholics know, is significant for a plethora of reasons. The most common idea is that seven is the number of completion, for when God finished the creation of the world. The seventh day of the week is a holy day, our Sabbath. And there are also the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.
Other theories I have heard is that regardless of how many fish dishes are served, a proper Italian meal must have a total of 12 dishes for the 12 days of Christmas. The Epiphany was traditionally celebrated in our home as well, and it was also the day we took down the tree. This is, of course, the 12th day of Christmas, and Christmas Eve ushers in those twelve days. Some say the 12 dishes indicates the 12 apostles as well. At this point, there is no way to tell for sure, but it’s a fascinating look into the traditions of a devout Catholic culture.
In honor of Christmas Eve, I’d like to offer the recipe for the calamari and pasta dish my grandmother followed every year she was alive. It is the most delicious meal, and something I looked forward to (at times, even more than the presents)!
Fortunately for us, one of my sisters was my grandmother’s faithful apprentice and learned to re-create this dish. We are blessed to have her cook it for us every year. If you’d like to try it too, here’s the recipe.
- 1/2 pound sea legs (tentacles), diced small
- 1 cup minced onion
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cans (28 ounces each) crushed tomatoes in puree
- 1 cup water
- 1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce
- 1 teaspoon dried basil, crumbled
- Cayenne pepper
- 3 pounds squid, cleaned
- 1 small onion, minced fine
- 2 cloves garlic, minced fine
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 hard-cooked eggs, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Locatelli or Parmesan, plus more (much more) for passing
- Salt and pepper
- 1 pound linguini
In a casserole set over moderate heat, cook the onion and garlic in the oil, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until translucent. In a blender or food processor, puree the tomatoes, water, and tomato sauce until smooth and add it to the casserole. Add the tentacles (sea legs), basil, cayenne, and salt. Bring the liquid to a boil and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.
Rinse the squid and turn the body sacs inside out. In a skillet set over moderate heat, cook the onion and garlic in the oil, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes more.
Transfer to a bowl. Add the eggs, bread crumbs, grated cheese, and salt and pepper.
Combine the mixture well. Stuff the squid with the bread crumb mixture and close with a toothpick. Add the squid to the sauce and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until just tender. Transfer the squid to a serving dish.
Meanwhile, cook the linguini, drain, and transfer it to a large bowl. Add enough sauce to coat the pasta and toss to combine. Sprinkle with cheese. Serve the squid separately with a mixed green salad.
Just as everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, anyone can be Italian for the Vigilia di Natale. So with that, buon apetito and Buon Natale!