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My father and mother were both born in Torecuso, Italy. It was a small Italian village north of Benevento, a medium-size Italian city. According to my son Tom, the three most dominant names in Torecuso were Iannella, Zotti and Rillo. My mother spent her early childhood in the United States, returning for her teen years and then returning to the United States. Both were steeped in the traditions of Meso Giorno, (middle or Southern Italy). One of these traditions was Festa dei Sette Pesci, or the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
As a young boy, I remember how my mother prepared the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It was not a feast as such, but rather a fasting or abstaining from meat and dairy products. It was always prepared on La Vigilia or Christmas Eve. It was OK to eat seafood before going to midnight Mass because it was not meat. We could eat meat only after receiving Communion.
My brother John and I would return home from Mass, and Mom would have hot meatballs on crisp Italian bread. It was a treat, although she would want to see the Church bulletin as proof that we were actually there. I can remember helping mom with preparing the food for the feast. It was my job to kill the eels that were one seafood item. Nonna, my maternal grandmother, would kill the eels in the bathtub. When she was too old for this, I took over the job.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes had its origin in the southern region in places like Naples and Sicily. It was not known in northern Italy. The Feast of the Seven Fishes was really all about seafood and family.
The number seven is revered in the Scriptures. La Festa dei Sette Pesci includes the seven fishes because of the seven sacraments, the seven virtues of Christ theology, the seven days it took for Joseph and Mary to reach Egypt, and the seven days it took God to create the Earth.
Some Italian families include 13 fishes to represent the 12 Apostles plus Jesus. Some families just include 11 fishes, and exclude Jesus and Judas Iscariot. Other families just have three fishes to represent the three wise men or the Holy Trinity. Other families just put the seven fishes in a stew called clopino.
My family always did just the seven fishes. My mother would say that seven was important because of the seven sacraments.
Now my son Kevin carries the tradition forward. He has accepted the responsibility of preparing the feast, and he has kicked me out of my own kitchen. I can appreciate his doing so. His carrying out the tradition has lifted my heart. If my heart had wings, it would soar across the sky taking advantage of the family updrafts of love and familial unity.
It is the best Christmas gift that I could ever wish for—bringing the entire family together in mutual love and reverence for the birth of Jesus Christ.
(Thomas Rillo is a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.) †