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Feast of the Seven Fishes

By Shannon Colaianni Tinnell
Photographs by Addie and Chelsie Photo

A crowd fills Monroe Street for the annual Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival in downtown Fairmont. Photograph by Addie and Chelsie Photo.

One Saturday every December, thousands of people flee the local malls and the big box stores, or abandon the warmth and comfort of home, to venture forth onto chilly Monroe Street in downtown Fairmont. They come for a day filled with authentic Italian seafood cuisine, wonderful — and free — performances of traditional holiday music, and unique gift-shopping opportunities at an open-air street market. These are a few of the things that make up the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival, a holiday event designed to preserve Italian-American customs and foodways as exemplified by the traditional Christmas Eve meal of the same name.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a centuries-old custom observed primarily by southern Italians, consisting of a seafood meal served on Christmas Eve in observation of La Vigilia, or the vigil for the Christ child. The Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from the consumption of meat or milk products on Fridays and specified holy days includes Christmas Eve. It was only logical that the faithful developed a meal of seafood for this special day.

But why seven fishes? Some suggest it has to do with the number of sacraments celebrated in the Catholic Church, while others contend it reflects Biblical references to the number seven representing perfection. Seven is the number most associated with the tradition, but — it can be any number of dishes, although apparently always an uneven number — three, five, seven, nine, and so on.

North-central West Virginia is known for its large and dynamic Italian-American community, and the feast is actively celebrated there. Nearly every family has stories to tell about the food and the laughter and the socializing.

Karen Kaye Bitonti Larry, of Philippi, recalls: “We ate smelts, eel, and a squid-tomato-hard bread-seasonings soup. There were also fruits and nuts. I remember what we called ‘Italian celery,’ which I think was probably fennel. After dinner we went to Midnight Mass.”

Atelio “Ott” Meale, of Fairmont, fondly remembers the families as well as the calamari or seafood sauce that they ate. He recalls how his family would laugh and have fun and then get ready for Midnight Mass. “You didn’t eat meat until after midnight,” Ott says. He recalls how much fun it was to visit the neighbors and friends and how he couldn’t wait to see everyone and drink the holiday wine and eat sausage.

Karen Larry agrees: “It was customary for people to go from home to home, eating sausage and drinking wine. That made a very long night and a very early morning when we called Mom and Dad to let us go to the tree!”

Joe Tristani, of Fairmont, remembers: “After Midnight Mass we’d go up on the hill, and everyone would break out their new homemade wine. We wouldn’t get home until noon the next day.”

In the Fairmont area, where I am from, the feast is particularly beloved — even many non-Italians tell of their efforts to join their Italian friends on Christmas Eve to enjoy the delicious dishes that make up the feast.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.