The Feast of Many Nations

christmas-tree-inside-the-house.jpgOn December 24th, 1963, Philadelphia was hit with a rip-roaring blizzard.  I’ll never forget it.  By evening, the drifts were well past knee-high.  Snowflakes swirled in the halos of streetlights.  Driving anywhere was out of the question.  Wrapped up in coats, boots, gloves, hats and scarves, and loaded down with bags of presents, my girlfriend Bonnie, my mother and I set out on foot for Aunt Tilda’s house. 

What would have been a 7-minute drive turned into an hour trek.   I remember laughing so hard we could hardly walk.  We knew we were crazy to be slogging through such a storm, but we were determined to reach our destination.  It was Christmas Eve, and Aunt Tilda had prepared the traditional Italian Feast of Seven Fishes.

Tilda’s house was decorated to the rafters.  Twinkling lights outlined every window.  Tiny red and green Christmas balls hung from each curtain ruffle.  Swags of tinsel garland draped the mirrors.  The huge tree was covered with hundreds of ornaments she had been collecting for decades.  At its top perched a gossamer angel.  And beneath its bedecked branches, nestled the white and gold 30-piece Nativity set that Tilda had stayed up into the wee hours painting on many a sweltering summer night.

Uncle Frank pressed glasses of sweet amber sherry into our hands, assuring us with a wink and a grin that it was the best way to warm our bones.  Placing our gifts around the tree, we headed for the dining room.  Uncles, aunts, cousins, Grandmom and special friends crowded around the table.  Presents would come later.  It was time to feast.

stuffedcalamari.jpgAnd what a feast it was!  One by one the Seven Fishes appeared.  Smoked oysters.   Stuffed calamari sautéed in garlic and parsley.  Deep-fried smelts.  Crisp flounder filets.  Angel hair pasta tossed with breadcrumbs and bits of anchovies.  Fusilli swimming in a white wine clam sauce.  Just when we felt we couldn’t eat another bite, Aunt Tilda carried in the Baccala.  The night’s special treat, it was a savory stew of salt cod and prunes that had simmered for hours in a rich tomato gravy.

By the time we left, the snow had stopped falling.  We walked in silence, too full of good food to speak.  Back home, Bonnie and I drank coffee and talked for hours.  It had been her first Christmas experience.  A week before I had been a guest for Chanukah dinner at her home.  We decided that although the holidays we celebrated were different, sharing a celebration meal with family and friends was a universally joyous occasion.

On Christmas Eve many Italian families enjoy a meatless meal that has been a highlight of the seasonal festivities for centuries.  The Feast of Seven Fishes.  How the total of fish dishes prepared came to number seven is a mystery.  Some say it referred to the seven days of the week and served as a reminder to practice a spirit of devotion every day.  A more mundane explanation is simply that Italy’s peninsular shape blesses the nation with many thousand miles of coastline and an abundance of fresh seafood.
posadas.jpgThe appearance of the evening star on December 24th marked the end of Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas that once meant a time of sacrifice and devout preparation.  Christmas Eve became the night of joyous celebration, while Christmas was a quiet day spent with family. 

In Spain the streets are crowded with people who dance, sing and enjoy appetizers called tapas until the cathedral bells toll for Midnight Mass.  In Mexico candle-lit processionals known as posadas travel from house to house re-enacting the Holy Family’s search for shelter.  Along the way the participants are treated to spiced tropical fruit punch and quesadillas antojitos, little tortillas filled with anything from cheese to sautéed squash blossoms.

Like the Italian Feast of Seven Fishes, symbolic numbers can play a significant role in the preparation of the Christmas Eve dinner.  Ukrainians sit down to the Holy Supper with twelve meatless dishes, each one representing one of the twelve apostles.  The British custom of eating twelve tiny mince pies augurs good fortune for each month of the coming year.  In Norway coffee and a succession of fourteen different cakes are served while the Christmas tree is being decorated even though the reason for the cakes numbering fourteen has been lost to history.

Some Christmas foods have symbolic meanings that go beyond the Christian celebration.  The Swedish custom of beginning the Christmas Eve meal with a slice of bread that has been dipped into the pot where fat sausages have been stewing recalls a long ago famine when the only food was bread and broth.  The standing rib roast of beef that is the centerpiece of many English tables harks back to the time when Roman soldiers celebrated Winter Solstice by sacrificing a bull to their patron god Mithras. 

wheatsheave.gifSince Christmas occurs a few days after Winter Solstice, many traditions have their roots in ancient pagan agricultural rituals.  In Russia, Poland, Sweden, Norway and Greece, wheat sheaves were brought into the house on Christmas Eve to represent the Christ child’s manger.  Families also baked special cakes that were sliced and eaten with great ceremony before the Christmas Eve meal. 

Both the wheat and cakes symbolized the family’s hope that their grain harvest would be abundant in the coming year.  Often, one cookie or a slice of cake was saved until planting season when it was crumbled and sown along with the grain.  In Czechoslovakian farming communities, people shared a part of every course from Christmas Eve dinner with their barnyard animals.

In times past, many people of Western Europe shared the custom of lighting a huge Yule log on Christmas Eve that was meant to burn throughout the holiday season.  The tradition dates back to the Vikings who burned a great log in honor of Thor, god of thunder. 

yule-log1.jpgThe Yule log has remained part of England’s holiday tradition, but it is now a much smaller length of firewood since few hearths are large enough to hold a log that  will burn for twelve days. 

In France, the same custom took a different and tastier turn.  The highlight of every Christmas Eve dinner is Buche de Noel, a rich chocolate cake that is shaped and decorated with icing to resemble a log.

All around the world the holiday season is a time to gather with family and friends, to share abundance, to feast, to reflect on the memories of joyful times past, and to make every effort to insure that the future will be peaceful and prosperous for all. In the United States the holiday season is celebrated in a myriad of ways bequeathed us by the thousands of immigrants who have flocked to our shores.  The older I become the more firmly I hold to the decision Bonnie and I reached more than thirty years ago.  Regardless of heritage, celebrations bring people together in a spirit of joy and renewal.  We were very young then, but we were very wise.


Edythe Preet, former Culinary Historian for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, presently heads up The Heritage Kitchen which offers a wide range of treats based on heirloom recipes as well as superb examples of mid-century American vintage linens.