With Mom and my nieces Alexa, Julianna and Sophia.

Christmas Past and Present: A Few of My Favorite Traditions

Mom and Dad with Santa Claus — a Christmas Eve tradition – circa 1971.

Yesterday, I offered a few suggestions on how to beat the Holiday Blues. It hadn’t occurred to me that remembering and celebrating the traditions that have made Christmases past and present unforgettable is another way to lift your spirits and refocus on what truly matters. Here are a few that mean the most to me.

1. The Feast of the Seven Fishes

This has been a Christmas Eve tradition in my family for as long as I can remember and ranks up there with Thanksgiving as a favorite holiday meal:

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian Christmas celebration. Today, it is a feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. However, some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with nine, eleven or thirteen different seafood dishes. This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. It is unclear when the term “Feast of the Seven Fishes” was popularized.

The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence – in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products – on Wednesdays, Fridays and (in the Latin Church) Saturdays, as well as during Lent and on the eve of specific holy days. As no meat or butter could be used on such days, observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil.

The meal may include seven, eight, or even nine specific fishes that are considered traditional. The most famous dish Southern Italians are known for is baccalà (salted cod fish). The custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà is attributed to the greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy. Fried smelts, calamari and other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.
There are many hypotheses for what the number “7” represents. Seven is the most repeated number in the Bible and appears over 700 times.

One popular theory is the number represents completion, as shown in Genesis 2:2: “By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” During the feast of the seven fishes, participants celebrate the completion of God’s promise of the Messiah through baby Jesus. Other theories include: that the number represents the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church; and that seven is a number representing perfection; the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ.

In my family, the menu has typically included shrimp cocktail (served as an hors d’oeuvre before dinner), crab cakes, spaghetti with clams (white sauce), spaghetti with mussels (red sauce), scallops, breaded flounder and fried smelts (not something I like but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless). As the article above suggests, we’ve often gone beyond the number 7, expanding the menu to include other delicious fruits of the sea like salmon, tilapia and tuna (served as an appetizer).

One year when I was a young teenager, we returned to the kitchen (where we’d been grazing on appetizers) after hanging out for bit in front of the Christmas tree in the rec room to find that our cat Tab just couldn’t resist temptation. Normally pretty well-behaved, the tantalizing scent of shrimp was apparently too much to resist, compelling him to jump on the kitchen table and dig in. To our surprise instead of getting angry, my meticulous and germ-conscious mother sweetly advised him, “Alright Tab, that’s your Christmas present. I hope you enjoyed it!”

One of the many flavorful seafood offerings present at the table on Christmas Eve.

2. Christmas Eve with Santa Claus

When my siblings and I were very young, my cousin Maris would arrange for her uncle to dress up as Santa Claus and arrive at our house bearing wrapped gifts (purchased ahead of time by my mom) for us and the kids of family friends who would also come over. One year, I swore that a red light outside was the Rudolph’s nose and kept the adults entertained as I shrieked hysterically, “I see him Mommy!”

Fun times.

My cousin Maris (RIP) gives Santa a kiss.

3. Matching Dresses and Red Nightgowns

Although my sister and I are five years apart, my mom managed to buy matching holiday dresses for us for many years. I don’t have a scanned photo to upload unfortunately, but my favorite was a long, navy blue one embroidered with white snowflakes with a red sash. Back in the day, long dresses were popular for little girls and being fashionable “girly girls”, Carolyn and I loved this tradition. Ditto for the matching red nightgowns Mom would buy us every year — a tradition that continued well into our teenage and young adult years.

A red nightgown like this one was an annual tradition for my sister and me.

4. Italian Wedding Cookies

I know, I talk about these a lot but that’s because they are not only delicious but also a ubiquitous presence around the Christmas Holidays. Since I’ve been in PA, I’ve been a cookie-baking fiend and the batch pictured below are my most recent creations. Especially excellent with coffee!

What are your favorite traditions?

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