The Christmas Eve dinner in many Italian-American households receives more attention than any other holiday dinner, even Christmas dinner itself.
This extensive, traditional dinner, often shared by extended family members and friends, features servings of at least seven different types of fish but usually no meat.
“Christmas Eve was one of the most important things; she would prepare for it weeks ahead of time,” said Delores Scalise of Rotterdam about her mother from the Calabria region of Italy.
“It was more important than Christmas,” said Scalise, who hosts the weekly “Cooking with Dee” program on the local cable public access Channel 16.
“But as a kid, I was not a happy kid,” Scalise said as she spoke of the preparations for the meal, especially the fish smells.
She said the salted cod, baccala, had to be soaked in water for three or four days to get the salt out of it. She was in charge of changing the water daily, and it didn’t smell very nice.
But as the years went by, Scalise and her own family continued the tradition, often inviting as many as 30 guests to their home.
“Christmas Eve was beautiful,” Scalise said.
Her fish lineup includes cod, shrimp, mussels, smelt, anchovies, calamari (squid) and fried or baked haddock. They are cooked in a variety of sauces and served as main courses or appetizers.
“It’s seven fish after the seven sacraments [in the Roman Catholic Church],” Scalise said. She said every region of southern Italy has its own Christmas Eve customs.
Professor Philip J. DiNova, executive director of the American-Italian Heritage Museum at 1227 Central Ave. in Albany, said some families celebrate Christmas Eve with as many as 13 different types of fish servings.
“The basic tradition is that you couldn’t eat meat on the day before Christmas,” DiNova said.
“We try to keep the traditions alive,” he added. “I think they are beautiful.”
Christmas and Christmas Eve were always a family gathering, he said. The saying goes that you can spend New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve with whomever you wish “but Christmas you always spend with your family.”
Romans in the time before Christ were the first to celebrate their pagan holiday on Dec. 25 with decorations of greens and holly. When the Christian era came, Christmas, the traditional date of the birth of Christ, was also celebrated on Dec. 25.
“Even today in Italy Christmas is a religious holiday,” DiNova said.
He said that in many parts of Italy, gifts are not exchanged until Epiphany, or “Little Christmas,” on Jan. 6.
DiNova said his family always celebrated Christmas Eve at home with a seven-fish dinner. He said the fish tradition is mainly from southern Italy, from Rome south to Sicily.
The northern parts of Italy don’t have access to fish as they do in Naples or Sicily, he said.
“Most people in the United States tend to be more traditional than [people] in Italy,” DiNova said.
“In keeping with the Italian tradition of Christmas Eve, my Italian home will be serving seven fishes,” Scalise wrote in a story called “Christmas Eve in an Italian Home.”
“These include baccala stew, calamari [fried, stuffed and some with pasta and red sauce], smelts, angel hair pasta with aglio and olio [garlic and olive oil] and anchovies, mussels, clams and shrimp,” she writes.
“Mama will fry her famous monicelli [a dough filled with anchovies],” she said.
“After an hour or so of eating, the table would be cleared and on to the desserts and drinks,” she said.
Scalise said desserts are very important and include many favorites and traditional staples like finocchio, an anise flavored type of celery, prickly pears, tangerines, nuts, figs, roasted chestnuts and torrone [Italian nougat candy with almonds].
“We top off the evening with a cup of Italian espresso served with a shot of anisette,” she writes.
Along with the coffee comes the pignolata (a honey pastry sometimes called struffoli), cucidate (a Sicilian cookie filled with grated fruits, nuts and figs) and panettone, a kind of Italian fruitcake.
After all the eating, the family attends midnight Mass and sings Italian Christmas songs.
Scalise said friends and family return to the house after Mass for more desserts, wine, and anisette until the early morning hours.
“What a beautiful night to remember with famiglia and cucina,” she writes. “What beautiful memories of our ancestors.”
Courtesy of Delores Scalise.
Also called Struffoli or Honey Balls).
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons oil
3 cups flour
Canola oil for frying
3 cups honey
Colored candy sprinkles
In a large bowl beat eggs. Add sugar and oil, beat until foamy. Gradually add flour mixing well.
Place dough on a floured board and knead with your hands until dough is smooth, forming a ball.
Let dough rest 15 minutes. Take pieces of the dough and roll each piece into pencil shape about 10-12 inches long and about 1/2-inch wide. Cut each rolled out piece of dough into small size balls (like small marbles). You may have to flour your board to prevent dough from sticking to board or your hands. Continue until all are shaped.
In a deep skillet heat about 4 inches of canola oil until very hot. Fry balls a few at a time until golden brown. Remove with slotted spoon and place on paper towels.
Continue till all are fried.
In a large skillet place honey and heat . Remove from stove and carefully stir the fried balls into the honey being sure all are coated evenly. Remove with slotted spoon and place onto a platter shaping into a mound. Sprinkle with colored candies. Eat and enjoy.
(I place the fried balls in a large foil plate, pour the warm honey over them and gently mix together.)