The Night of Seven Fishes and Other Christmas Traditions

I do not come from an Italian family, but every Christmas Eve, we partake in a great Italian tradition: The Night of Seven Fishes.  We began this tradition a few years ago on Christmas Eve, when my immediate family gathers to eat, open presents, and play board games.  I could not be happier about the adoption of The Night of Seven Fishes because it is one of the most glorious eating experiences of all time.  I’m not quite sure about the exact rules of The Night of Seven Fishes, but I do know that in my family it means cooking seven fish dishes and then eating them all in a row. It is a feat of much physical strength and it is delicious.

My mom's cookbook collection.

I love the cooking that goes on around Christmas time because it involves looking at and using old cookbooks and partaking in cooking traditions that have been passed down from the generations.  It also involves taking culinary risks and learning new dishes to add to the repertoire.  These dishes aren’t just ordinary dishes, they are dishes that have been passed through the generations.  Like I mentioned in my Mother’s Day post, I feel like the spirits of my grandma and great-grandmother are with my mom and me in the kitchen as my mom prepares the traditional Swedish dishes that she is entrusting unto me so that I may pass them to my children who will in turn pass them down to their children.  Cooking on Christmas is an homage to our past and a salute to the future, while eating like queens in the present.

Now that my brother has married into a Russian family, we have combined the dishes from both cultures into one, large, delicious smorgasbord of Russian and Swedish goodness.  New traditions are learned, new dishes have been added, and cognac is involved. And even more kinds of fish.  At the end of the Christmas holiday, and after much calculation, I figured that I ate 10 different kinds of fish:  herring (prepared the Swedish way and the Russian way), shrimp, baked oysters, lox, smoked sea bass, smoked trout, mussels in white wine sauce, seared tuna, caviar, and now the tenth one is escaping me…

The "new" Betty Crocker cookbook. First edition, copyright 1961.

This year, I was in charge of making the mussells, the baked oysters (New Orleans style), tomates provencales, and I watched and learned as my mom made the famous Swedish bread that we eat on Christmas morning. Another highlight was making Jansson’s Temptation, the best potato dish ever.  A Swedish dish popularized in the 1930s, Jansson’s Temptation features layers of potatoes, onions, anchovies, and heavy cream, topped off by bread crumbs. After baking in the oven, the anchovies dissolve leaving a delicious, creamy, warm potato dish.  It is very tempting to eat the entire dish in one sitting.

One of the joys of the holiday is enjoying a wide variety of dishes that we don’t always make during the rest of the year.  I do make a lot of fish during the year, but never seven different fish dishes in one meal!

What are some of your family’s Christmas cooking traditions?

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6 thoughts on “The Night of Seven Fishes and Other Christmas Traditions”

  1. Alright, Sonja – Next year I’m totally crashing your Christmas Eve celebration. Sounds fabulous.

    I love how traditions add so much to our holiday experiences!

    Hope you’re having an excellent 2011 so far! Looking forward to more delicious blogging with you.

  2. You are definitely welcome to crash our Christmas Eve celebration! There is definitely enough food more many people! Thanks for commenting 🙂

    2011 is off to a great start. I, too, am also looking forward to delicious blogging with you this year!

  3. “Cooking on Christmas is an homage to our past and a salute to the future, while eating like queens in the present.”

    I couldn’t have put it better myself. 🙂 For me, Christmas truly does begin in the kitchen. I never knew my grandfather on my mother’s side, but I do know that my Mum got her love of Christmas from him and passed it on to me, so I have that connection with him. And Mum assures me that if he were alive today, the three of us would all be in the kitchen at Christmas, squabbling over the nice rolling pin and the scales that actually work. 🙂

    We don’t have any specific dishes that we have over Christmas, not ones that we make ourselves. For as long as I can remember, we’ve had a Chinese on Christmas Eve but our Christmas cooking tends to be sausage rolls, cheese straws, mince pies, Christmas Puddings, Christmas Cakes (Not all of them for us, we take orders. :)) and anything else that takes our fancy. And we always have to try something new. Last year, it was cookie mixes in jars. They went so well that they’ve made it on to our “must do” list at Christmas. The year before, we tried gingerbread houses. The less said about that, the better. And we used to buy all our Christmas chocolates (and we still do buy a fair few, I must admit) but we make our own as well now.

    There’s so much that I love about Christmas, but the cooking is the best part. I can’t imagine not wanting to be in the kitchen with my Mum at Christmas.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Kate! I would have to agree that spending Christmas in the kitchen with my mom is one of the best parts of the holiday. I like that you said that you always try something new to cook on Christmas. Part of the fun of cooking is experimenting and trying new things. I love experimenting. Who knows what we’ll cook up this Christmas!

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