On the night before Christmas in our household, candles illuminate otherwise disregarded corners, bowls of nuts and tangerines adorn tabletops, and jars of homemade pickles and preserves—holiday gifts from friends and neighbors—line the kitchen counter. Strains of Handel's Messiah mingle above our heads with the smells of pine needles, toasting bread crumbs, and lemon. The evening is pregnant with anticipation for both the anniversary of a miracle and a feast, which is sometimes a miracle in itself. We Italians usher in Christmas Day with Cena della Vigilia, the dinner of the vigil—the meal that breaks a daylong fast, at least in theory. The custom of the Christmas vigil dates back to the 7th century. In those days, fasting meant not eating or drinking anything but water for 12, 24, even 48 hours before receiving Communion on Christmas. Over the centuries, however, fasting obligations were relaxed, rules of abstinence—which meant no meat and, for the especially pious, no eggs or dairy products—became the standard, and the duration of the fast dwindled to one hour. Today, in my family and (I'm sure) in many others with a European Catholic heritage, the imminent birth of Christ is celebrated with one long, delicious—albeit meatless—dinner party. After that, we go to Midnight Mass. The meal, if properly prepared and paced, usually helps us stay awake.
Many of the world's religions employ some sort of numerology in their rituals, and Christianity is no exception. When it comes to the number of dishes served for Cena della Vigilia, however, there is no consensus. In many of Italy's landlocked regions, three courses are prepared, representing the Three Wise Men; in the Abruzzo, nine are preferred for the Trinity times three or for the nine months of the Virgin Mary's gestation; in parts of southern Italy, 12 or 13 are served for the apostles (numbered with or without either Jesus or Judas). I've even heard rumors of 24 courses someplace. The norm seems to be seven dishes, though, and that is the Vigilia feast I grew up with—not in Italy, but in Katonah, about 60 miles north of New York City—because that's the Vigilia feast my father, artist, cook, and cookbook author Ed Giobbi, grew up with himself.
My father's family hails from Le Marche—a region northeast of Umbria that borders the Adriatic Sea—and there, La Vigilia means seven different kinds of seafood, cooked seven different ways. According to my father, the number seven is important because it represents the seven sacraments. (When I used to ask him what the sacraments were, he'd answer, "pasta alle vongole, caponata alla siciliana, brodetto alla san benedettese ...") Seven fish dishes are also traditional in some other Italian regions. In Naples, I later learned from Joseph Scognamillo, chef-owner of Patsy's in New York City, the number is said to allude to the seven days of the week, the seven virtues, and the seven hills of Rome—and maybe even the 52 weeks of the year, on the grounds that five plus two equals seven.
The dishes and the types of fish served for La Vigilia are ultimately dictated by geography. In Naples, for instance, the devout leave certain treats on the table overnight for the angel who heralds Christ's birth; for this reason, many dishes are vinegar-based to preserve them. Around Lake Como in the north, large trout, which are only fished during the holiday season, are common.
In America, almost anyone can find the raw materials for the Vigilia feast of his or her heritage. Just before Christmas, markets in New York's Italian neighborhoods, for instance, stock up on a variety of Mediterranean and Adriatic goods such as triglia, or red mullet; seppie, called cuttlefish or inkfish in English (similar to squid but with a rounder body and thicker flesh); cicale, a relative of shrimp; langostino, a small, spiny lobster; tiny vongole, or clams; baby eels for frying; fresh sardines; fresh anchovies. "My mother," Scognamillo tells me, "she'd sell her soul to meet the proper requirements for La Vigilia."