For many in Appalachia, Christmas Eve consists of light snacks in anticipation of the next day’s baked ham with brown sugar glaze, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole and lots of cookies.
But if you’re of Italian heritage, the day before Christmas may consist of deep-fried calamari, octopus salad, clams, fried smelts, scallops, shrimp cocktail, oyster shooters, scungilli (sea snail) and baccala (salt cod).
The Feast of the Seven Fishes, held on Christmas Eve, is an Italian-American celebration that features fish and other seafood dishes and is rooted in the ancient tradition of Roman Catholics abstaining from meat and dairy products before holidays, according to Saveur, the gourmet food and travel magazine.
“It’s unclear where the fixation on seven types of seafood came from in the America meal — some say it represents the seven sacraments, seven cardinal virtues, or seven days of the week. Some Italian-Americans set a different number all together, like 12 (guessed by some to represent the 12 apostles),” reads an article by Saveur’s Stacy Adimando.
While the features of the meal are rooted in Italian traditions, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American creation. It’s likely Southern Italian immigrants brought the concept with them to America, and it has developed over time into the official “Feast of the Seven Fishes” meal that celebrates history, family and food.
Communities all across America now host the feast on Christmas Eve, specifically in areas with large Italian populations — including Appalachia.
Many Italians from the Calabria region of Italy made their way to North Central West Virginia to work in the coal mines in the early 1900s. In 1910, more than 17,000 Italians were living in West Virginia, making up 30 percent of the entire foreign-born population of the state, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
Robert Tinnell, a Marion County native with Italian heritage, wanted to document the Feast of the Seven Fishes Christmas Eve tradition he grew up with by creating a graphic novel in 2005.
The graphic novel spurred Fairmont’s “Feast of the Seven Fishes” festival the following year, which was filled with street vendors, a cooking school, entertainment and music. Thousands attend the festival each year, and it has been named a Top 20 Event for December by the Southeast Tourism Society.
Most recently, the book has been adapted into a film and was shot in North Central West Virginia — cementing the region’s status as the capital of the beloved feast.
Like many events, the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival will look a bit different this year, with drive-thru menu options and televised programming in lieu of a street festival.
But the sentiment of the holiday remains. West Virginians can continue to celebrate the heritage of West Virginia and the patchwork of various cultures that make Appalachia unique during these uncertain times.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is one example of honoring our roots while maintaining an Appalachian spirit. Now, I think more than ever, it’s important to keep our neighbors and community in mind as we weather challenges ahead during this different holiday.
So, maybe add a fish dish to your upcoming holiday in honor of this tradition, celebrate Appalachian heritage and stay healthy, friends.