What The Feast Of The Seven Fishes Means To Me

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Growing up, I thought everyone was Italian. Like innocent until proven guilty, you were Italian until proven otherwise.

My 10-year-old brain couldn’t comprehend that Italy wasn’t the only other country to exist and people had different traditions than we did.

New Jersey Italian is its own kind of culture. If you drop us in Italy, our accents would give us away, and we’d stick out like sore thumbs, but in Jersey, we fit right in.

Even if you’re not Italian, you can’t avoid the hundreds of restaurants and accents when you live here. It’s almost overwhelming, the amount of culture in one place.

When I moved to college, I realized how much my location impacted my way of growing up. In upstate New York, I wasn’t running into a random family member every day, and no one was asking me about my last name whenever I introduced myself.

My great-grandparents from both sides of my family immigrated to New Jersey from Italy, sinking their roots early on. Most of my family never left, so generations of relatives all live within a 10-minute drive from me. Holidays, birthdays, and Sunday dinners at my grandma’s were always at least 15 people.

I thought everyone had this experience: big, intense families that all lived right around the corner. When I got to college, I realized that that isn’t true for everyone. Not everyone has 13 great-aunts and uncles living in the town next to them.

Holidays are when my family shines. Nothing gets an Italian family more excited than squeezing 30 of your closest friends and family into a tiny kitchen with an absurd amount of homemade food.

Since I can remember, we’ve been celebrating Christmas Eve at my grandma’s house in Bloomfield. For me, this is the night I look forward to every year.

For many Italian-American families, Christmas Eve is the feast of the seven fishes.

Traditionally, your dinner consists of seven types of seafood that you start preparing way before everyone gathers for dinner. The number seven can symbolize many things, but my family cares less about the meaning and more about how it brings us together. Honestly, I don’t even know if we have seven different kinds.

It’s something my grandparents passed down to my parents and then to my cousins and me.

When I ask my dad about Christmas Eve, he talks less about the actual dinner and more about the buildup. For my family, the holiday starts way before we sit down for dinner. The preparations are the most exciting part.

My aunts and uncles start their cooking at their own homes. My aunt starts preparing the bacala, a dried salted fish, days before Christmas Eve at her house in Montclair. The fish is preserved in salt and needs to be soaked before it’s ready for eating.

My grandma makes the calamari and the sauce. In Bloomfield, she deftly stuffs dozens of squid with her homemade breadcrumbs. She makes a tomato sauce mixed with the calamari and a sauce without for our family members who don’t like fish.

For my cousins and me, our holiday starts early Christmas Eve morning when we go to Newark with our uncles to get the rest of the fish for dinner. For years, my dad and his brothers have packed my brother, cousins, and me into their cars to bring us to the same seafood market every year only 20 minutes from our houses.

In Verona, my dad cleans and prepares the clams and lobster we just bought while my uncle across town makes the seafood salad.

The fun really begins, though, in my grandma’s kitchen.

All the final touches are done at my grandma’s, dressed in our fancy Christmas outfits, nibbling on the cheese my grandma set out for us.

As people arrive and the house gets more and more cramped, the night truly begins.

For my family, everything is connected to where we’re from. Living in New Jersey has strengthened our family through the culture embedded in where we live.

I’ve grown out of thinking everyone is Italian, but sometimes I still have to remind myself.

Julia DiGeronimo, a 2019 graduate of Verona High School, earned a B.A. in writing and a B.A. in environmental studies from Ithaca College. You can read more of her writing at Julia Is Blogging.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Julia- Mrs.Clayton here!
    This beatiful article hits home- I could have written it myself about my own upbringing. Times have changed , and we have said our good byes to many over the years , as well as changing family dynamics,, but nothing can change the memories. Thank you so much for the good warm feelings of Christmas Eves past.
    Buon natale Julia!

  2. Great article Julia! SO NOSTALGIC- Couldn’t agree more with your comments of being Italian- American, especially living in NJ. Only 1 difference in our family.. we tried to have a lot of fish dishes, but when I was a child , I can remember we kept complaining because we didn’t really like fish that much. So it just became a meal with alot if typical pasta , meat dishes.. but as you said, ALOT of it.. Thanks for reminding me of our beautiful heritage!!
    Vinny Emiliani 😊 ( VHS- class of ‘74)

  3. What a great piece of writing. Julia, you are terrific. I grew up in Verona a LONG time ago (leaving there at age 24 in 1964). My mother was Italian and she did the cooking. We did not have the seven fishes Christmas Eve dinner (because her family all lived in Cleveland, Ohio), but we had much of the good Italian stuff. Living on Derwent Ave, it seemed that every other house had an Italian father and an Irish mother, so my mother’s job was to ‘teach’ all those Irish wives to cook Italian. [All the other houses seemed to be inhabited by Swedes; a strange but interesting neighborhood — they accused my father of being a Norwegian…]

    Bob Anderson (VHS 1958)

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