Feast of the Seven Fishes: Memories of Christmas Past

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For most, Christmas is a time of year for pleasant memories. Thoughts drift back to time spent decorating trees, wrapping (and unwrapping) presents and eating with family not seen since last Christmas. Ultimately it’s a time of tradition.

In the Mahoning Valley, one tradition passed down through the generations has become a hallmark of holiday cuisine: the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

“It’s like breathing almost,” says Monsignor Michael Cariglio, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the near north side of Youngstown. “I can never remember not doing it. Since I was four or five years old, my family has always done it.”

The origin of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is lost in the mists of time although it is accepted as a tradition brought to the United States via immigrants from central and southern Italy, many of whom settled in the Mahoning Valley.

The significance of the meal, however, is much clearer. Christmas Eve has long been a day of abstinence for Catholics, Cariglio says, when meat and dairy products weren’t consumed. But as families gathered for celebration, meals became a must and fish remained the only option.

The fish cooked were whatever was available, although popular longtime standards include baccalá – a dried and salted variety of cod – calamari, eel and smelt.

“Not every family used the same kind of fish. It all depended on what your preference was,” says Louis Fusillo, proprietor of Fusillo Catering. “My family may use seven kinds of fish and the monsignor’s family might use seven other kinds.”

And the dishes aren’t limited to fried seafood, he points out. Among those served in his family’s traditional feast in the Mount Carmel social hall are stuffed squid, baccalá with red sauce and pasta and a salad topped with the salted cod.

The significance of having seven varieties of fish stems from the Bible, representing the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church – baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, marriage, anointing the sick and Holy Orders – Cariglio says. The number seven, however, extends far deeper.

“There are a lot of myths around where seven came from, but what we were taught is that it’s a prominent number in the Bible,” says Michael Allegretto, who runs Lariccia’s Italian Marketplace, Boardman, with his wife, Tessa Allegretto.

God created the universe in seven days. The Sabbath is the seventh day. The Old Testament names seven as men of God. When referring to Jesus, Paul names seven titles. Jesus performed seven miracles on the Sabbath. In total, the number seven appears more times in the Bible than any other.

Not all families follow the tradition of seven fishes, Cariglio says, instead using a dozen types of fish to represent the 12 Apostles. In some cases, families may even use 13 to symbolize the apostles and Jesus.

“Some people have started to add nicer fish like crab legs or lobster,” he says. “Those came later. They’re not the traditional kinds of fish that are used because they are more expensive.”

Whatever the symbolism chosen, all agree that one of the main reasons they continue to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes is family.

“When we were kids, we’d get together with two or three families – 50 or 60 people – in a house. It was just friends who’d get together,” says Frank Occhibove, manager of Jimmy’s Italian Specialties in Liberty.

Back then, everyone chipped in and bought a 50-pound burlap sack filled with mussels, he says. The cooking went on constantly throughout the evening.

“Those are the memories I’ll never forget because we don’t do that anymore on that scale,” he says.

For the Allegrettos, the annual feast brings back those kinds of memories as well, but they’re also seeing memories created for their children. With a tradition that started with their grandparents passed down now to the fourth generation, the youngest generation of the family knows no meal on Christmas Eve other than fish.

“The smell alone – that fish smell in the house is like a comfort feeling now and even my kids are being raised with the same thing,” Tessa Allegretto says.

Michael Allegretto picks up immediately, “Our mothers have both passed away and Tessa has taken over that role. And our kids are telling us now that it smells exactly like Nana’s house.”

In Mount Carmel’s hall, Fusillo gathers with some 200 family members to celebrate the feast. After his parents died, there was a discussion among him and his siblings on whether to continue the tradition. The answer was a resounding yes.

At first, the tradition stayed in the homes, but eventually grew bigger and bigger to the point where the social hall was needed.

“In my family, there are so many of us and the younger ones are really involved. You hope that they carry on the tradition when we’re gone and the only way is to keep them involved so they grow up with it,” he says. “Between having everyone together and a little bit of wine and figuring who’s frying the calamari, or who’s breading the fish, it’s a very fun time.”

Passing on the tradition to a younger generation, Occhibove observes, is taking place everywhere. At Jimmy’s, sales of fish during the holiday season tapered off – “It was dying off, literally,” he says – about a decade ago before surging back over the past five years. But rather than older Italians stopping in to pick up their orders, he started to see younger people in their 20s and 30s, often with children in tow.

“They’re remembering the traditions they had with their grandparents and they want to start doing it again,” he says. “This resurgence has been really nice, both for our business and just to see it happening.”

The newer customers, he points out, aren’t always Italian, either. With the Mahoning Valley being the mosaic of cultures that it is, Occhibove sees people from all backgrounds ordering fish platters.

Allegretto notes that he’s had several non-Italian friends marry into Italian families and dive headfirst into the tradition, immediately taking part.

“Whatever the case is, it’s obvious that you don’t have to be Italian or Catholic to jump into it,” he says.

At Jimmy’s, the season of the Feast of the Seven Fishes begins the day after Thanksgiving, although many customers want it to start even earlier. On Black Friday, the store begins taking orders for fish platters that have one pound each of seven varieties for $70. In addition, many customers buy extra of family favorites to supplement the platter. The deadline to order is Dec. 21 and all orders are picked up Christmas Eve.

The comeback of the tradition has been so strong that he can no longer put numbers behind it.

“It’s got to be hundreds of pounds [of fish],” he says. “An absolutely enormous amount of fish leaves the doors Christmas Eve.”

In Boardman, Lariccia’s doesn’t sell platters, but moves about 1,500 pounds of fish, including 500 pounds each of smelt and haddock. The prices, he notes, change every year. This year, the price of calamari is higher, while haddock is about $9 per pound.

It’s become a tradition for customers to line up early at the store hours before it opens at 9 a.m. to buy their fish, the Allegrettos add, often with a mix of generations as parents and grandparents bring younger ones with them to wait.

“The line stretches from our front door out to Southern Boulevard,” Tessa Allegretto says. “It’s been that way for years.”

And for the people in line, Michael Allegretto continues, the fish they buy is an effort not only to recall years past, but create memories for their families that will be remembered for years to come.

“I don’t know any other food for that day,” he says. “My children have become accustomed to it. They know what’s on that day and that’s what they expect to get. It’s gone like that from my grandparents to my parents to me to my children.”

Pictured, top:  The line to buy fish at Lariccia’s is out the door on Christmas Eve, says co-owner Michael Allegretto.

Pictured, middle: Louis Fusillo and his family – some 200 people – gather every year in the social hall of Our Lady of Mount Carmel to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Pictured, bottom:  The Feast of the Seven Fishes began a resurgence about five years ago, as younger customers started to have families of their own, says Frank Occhibove.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.