Throughout Italy, Christmas Eve is celebrated with a 7-course fish feast, known as "La Vigilia." There are many schools of thought on why there are seven courses. Some say they represent the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church, others believe that they represent the seven virtues. To complicate matters further, some families even serve 10 or 13 courses. I am no expert, and in my family (my father's side is originally from Bari, my mother's side from Tuscany) we somehow ended up with 4 courses of 6 different fish dishes, plus dessert.
There is less debate about why fish is eaten: Christmas Eve is considered a holy day, or "fasting" day, which means no meat can be eaten. Apparently, seven courses of fish still counts as fasting--lucky us!
There are no hard and fast rules about what should be eaten on this night, only that the menu is limited to fish, and there is usually a pasta course. Many Italians serve lobster or eel, and salted cod (also called baccala), which has to be soaked and rinsed several times before it can be eaten, is very customary.
This is by far my favorite holiday, and I absolutely love this meal. We gather around 8pm at my parents' house (my mother is an incredible cook), and eat until past midnight, at which point we start exchanging gifts with everyone who comes for dinner.
Here is our menu, unchanged for many years. We love it so much, no one would dare change a thing!
1st course: Seafood salad with poached scallops, shrimp, calamari (squid), celery, olive oil, lemon juice, and parsley
2nd course: Spaghetti with clams
3rd course: Baccala three ways: whipped with olive oil and garlic; in a salad with cherry tomatoes and green olives; and deep fried in olive oil.
4th course: Whole salmon stuffed with artichokes and rosemary
5th course: Chocolate walnut tart and ricotta cheesecake
Do any of you celebrate Christmas Eve with a special dinner? We would love to hear about your tradition.