Italian-Americans celebrate holiday with seven-fish feast

The centuries-old Italian tradition of serving seven kinds of fish on Christmas Eve was continued wi

Categories: Schenectady County

The centuries-old Italian tradition of serving seven kinds of fish on Christmas Eve was continued with gusto Friday at the home of Carmela and Antonino Gerato.

Octopus, squid, clams, shrimp, scallops, lobster and baccala (salted cod) were prepared in various ways to the delight of the about 30 family and friends attending the annual event.

“I don’t like eel, nor do the kids,” Carmela joked. So there was no eel on the table at the Gerato home on Damascus Drive in the town of Wilton.

“All my children will be here and grandchildren and friends,” Carmela said. “They have been coming to my house for 10 years.

“I don’t even have to invite them; they know Christmas Eve is at my house,” she said.

Preparations started last week with the baking of cookies, including honey balls (also called struffoli or pignolata), almond cookies and sesame cookies. Earlier in the week, the Geratos started soaking the baccala in water to get some of the salt out of the dried cod.

The work intensified all day Friday. “Me and my husband, we work together,” Carmela said.

The octopus and squid are used in Carmela’s seafood salad. The fish is also breaded and fried or baked and served with lemon slices.

Some of the fish is used in a seafood spaghetti sauce. Carmela said her tomato sauce with fish is spicy.

The seven-fish Christmas Eve — some families even prepare 13 types of fish to represent the 12 apostles and Jesus — comes from southern Italy, those regions closest to the sea.

The seven fish represent the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church.

Professor Philip J. DiNova, executive director of the American-Italian Heritage Museum on Central Avenue in Albany, said years ago Catholics were not allowed to eat meat the day before Christmas, so they looked to the sea for the special meal.

The Christmas Eve dinner in many Italian-American households often receives more attention than the Christmas day dinner.

“Christmas day we eat leftovers,” Carmela Gerato joked. She did say that more time went into preparing the Christmas Eve dinner than in preparing her Christmas dinner.

DiNova said Italian-Americans have been very good about keeping the old tradition alive. He feels it’s important for families to pass on the old traditions.

“I think they are beautiful,” DiNova said.

Even in Italy, the seven-fish Christmas Eve has started to spread from the southern part of the country to the northern regions where fresh fish is not as easy to obtain.

“The people go to the north for jobs and they bring the traditions to the north,” DiNova said.

Carmela Gerato said she first experienced the Christmas Eve tradition when she was a girl in Queens. She said her parents died when she was young but her sister-in-law cooked the seven-fish dinner at her home on Long Island.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years; I started when we lived in Queens,” Carmela said.

The love of cooking and entertaining family and friends has rubbed off on Carmela’s son, Serafino Zaccone, who is a chef at Mama Mia’s Pizza and Cafe on Ballston Avenue in Saratoga Springs.

“But more important than the food is to have everybody here with me,” Carmela said.

“It’s a great way to get together,” she said. “Christmas is the best time of the year.”

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