Rite Before Christmas

Assimilation challenges tradition in South Philadelphia’s Italian-American population.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 29, 2008

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Raised at Eighth and Christian, Dolpies says that while some traditions—like decorating houses—are on the wane, the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the centerpiece meal of a traditional Southern-Italian Christmas, is still going strong.

It’s an interesting claim, since Dolpies herself won’t be feasting in South Philly this year. In the past, she’s cooked for 35 people in her home. Now that her kids have moved out of Philadelphia—they probably would’ve stayed if there were jobs, she says—she’s heading out of state for the holiday.

The roots of the Feast of the Seven Fishes (“La Vigilia”) are in Southern Italy and the Roman Catholic Church. By all accounts the number of fish has religious significance, though few agree if seven stands for sins, days of creation or virtues. Some families prepare 13 fish dishes in honor of Jesus and the apostles, while others prepare up to 20 fish dishes. A family’s number likely derives from their area of origin since regions have distinct beliefs. Italy, after all, wasn’t unified until the mid-19th century.

Counterintuitively, the feast started as a fast. Traditionally, Catholics abstain from eating meat on holy days, which lead to the custom of preparing fish on holidays. No particular types of fish are specifically required for the Feast, though most people agree serving the Feast to your eldest uncle without baccala, calamari, cephalopods, smelts and, most of all, eel (capitone) would be—as South Philly resident Sal Lucchesi puts it—missing the target.

Lucchesi worked seafood at Lucchesi’s Seafood at the corner of Ninth and Christian in the Italian Market for 38 years. The business opened in 1898 and shuttered in 1996. He sees the tradition of cooking the Feast dishes fading.

“No one has time anymore,” he says. “It’s a shame, but that’s what happened to most traditions.”

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