Though it has changed, Feast of the Seven Fishes persists in the region

There will be baccalà at Ed Gradilone’s family’s Christmas Eve feast, but no eel.

Like other Italian Americans across the country, Gradilone carries on the tradition his maternal and paternal grandparents brought from the Calabria region of Italy when they immigrated to Westerly, R.I., in the late 1880s, and that his parents followed and passed along to him and his siblings.

Fish is a staple for Italians on Christmas Eve, a practice rooted in ancient history, and tied to a time when Roman Catholics were prohibited from eating meat on Fridays and on the eve of religious holidays.

Much of that changed with Vatican II, but for Italian Americans, the Feast of the Seven Fishes has endured. Christmas Eve Day is the busiest of the year at two local fish markets in Pawcatuck, on the doorstep of Westerly, which is home to a large number of people of Italian descent.

Gradilone is president of Westerly’s Calabrese Club and a former Italian instructor at Westerly High School who now works as a supervisor at the Westerly campus of the Community College of Rhode Island. For him, the first course for Vigilia di Natale — Christmas Eve — will be a vermicelli pasta served with a sauce made from the salted cod.

His family abandoned another staple — eel — when decades ago his maternal grandmother was startled when the fish jumped while she was cleaning it in the sink.

“I’m not serving that anymore,” she said.

For many Italian Americans today, the so-called Feast of the Seven Fishes is not an iron-clad rule that seven fish dishes must be served, but rather a motivation to make fish a central theme of the celebratory meal served on Christmas Eve.

Historians note that the name and idea were born in the United States, not Italy, and that as older generations have passed away, Italian families serve a few fish dishes, but not always seven.

How that number came to be is a matter of debate, and Gradilone said his family typically serves 13 dishes, with a mix of fish, meat and other things. The number 13 symbolizes the 12 Apostles and Jesus, he explained.

Both written and oral accounts suggest the number seven was chosen because it is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible.

“Like in the Book of Genesis, on the seventh day, God rested,” Gradilone said. “And there are seven Sacraments.”

For fish markets, the tradition means a blockbuster day.

“We do 10 times the usual business,” said Kaitryn Allen, manager of Sea Well Seafood with locations in Pawcatuck and Masons Island.

On Sunday morning, 30 minutes before Sea Well opened at 9 a.m., a line was already forming. By 9:16 a.m., there were 26 customers snaking through the small shop and out the door onto Liberty Street.

Up South Broad Street, at Seafood Etc., it was busy, too.

“We are busier in the few days before Christmas than we are combined all the days of October and November,” said Sharon Clachrie, who has been in the fish business for 42 years and is the owner/manager of Seafood Etc.

Dana Horton of Westerly was buying cod, scallops and baked stuffed shrimp at Sea Well Sunday morning, and said she carries on a tradition she learned from her mother and grandmother, members of the Cardillo family.

“Christmas Eve is the best holiday of the year,” she said, reminiscing about family tradition and food.

More than a week in advance, customers start to phone in their Christmas Eve Day orders, asking for scallops, shrimp, calamari, conch, salmon, cod, smelts, lobsters, mussels and other already-prepared items such as stuffed clams, stuffed flounder and octopus salad.

The salted cod is sold early Christmas week, as it must be soaked for days before it can be used.

“It looks like a sheet of cardboard when you get it, and you soak it in water to get rid of the salt and to soften it up,” said Gradilone.

At Sea Well, employees started to arrive at 5 a.m. to begin pre-packaging the orders. Fresh fish shipments arrive every day, and Dec. 24 is no exception. By 6 a.m., there were more hands in the store to prepare more orders and the display cases for the 9 a.m. opening.

At Seafood Etc., Clachrie’s advice is to make sure to order in advance.

“If you don’t order early, you might be disappointed,” she said.

Years ago, the Christmas Eve orders would start to come in the day after Thanksgiving. But these days, most customers wait until a week or two before.

“The tradition is changing,” said Clachrie. “They still do fish, but it’s not seven courses, and they like the prepared foods like the stuffed shrimp, flounder or clams.

“We are still really busy, but it’s definitely changing,” she said.

Gradilone agrees. He’s president of Westerly’s Italian social organization, the Calabrese Club, and part of an extended family, but he’s witnessed the changes, too.

“As another generation comes down the pike, a lot of these traditions are falling by the wayside,” he said.

He and his wife and his sister — they are both named Joan — will collaborate on cooking the family’s Christmas Eve dinner, with the siblings replicating what they can of what their parents and grandparents made.

Christmas Eve, he said, is all about fish, family and tradition. He cites an Italian proverb, “Natale con i tuoi. E Pasqua con chi vuoi,” and explains it means, "Christmas with family and Easter with whomever you please."

Family, said Gradilone, is as important as fish on Christmas Eve.

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