The story goes that the three Wise Men were lost on their way to visit the Christ child. They came to the home of a strange old woman. With a long nose, warty skin, and scraggly gray hair, she was far from beautiful. But the three Magi told her about their journey – how they were looking for a great king and were bringing him lavish gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They asked the old woman if she knew where to find the child, but she did not. So they asked her if she would like to join them in their search for the king. She only laughed, probably thinking these strange Magi had lost their minds. She refused to go, so they continued on their journey without her.
When night came again, she saw a great light in the sky – a star brighter than any she had seen before. Suddenly, she regretted not going with the Wise Men. She decided she would try to follow after them. All she had to bring to the baby king were the toys of her children, who had died many years ago. She gathered these up in a sack, put on her cloak to keep warm, and then mounted her broomstick. After all, if she was going to catch up to the Wise Men, she would need to fly.
But as the old woman flew through the night, searching and searching, she could not find the great king child anywhere. Centuries later, she still flies through the night with her toys in a sack. Every year, on January 6 – the feast of the Magi, or the Epiphany – as she searches for the Christ child, she brings toys to young boys and girls in Italy.
…Or so legend would have it. “La Befana” is just one of many Christmas traditions celebrated by Italians. While Santa Claus is still more of a northern European and American tradition, La Befana is not the only one known for bringing gifts in Italy. Some Italians believe that the blind St. Lucy brings gifts to children on her feast day on December 13. Others celebrate on Christmas day with gifts from the Christ child Himself. The idea in Italy is that Christmas is more than a single day. It is an entire season of celebration, beginning in early December and running until January.
While Christmas is basically an all-day feast, Christmas Eve is a celebration of particular Italian significance. Known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, it is technically a day of fasting. According to Italian Catholic custom, you shouldn’t eat meat the day before a major feast day. Fish, however, is perfectly acceptable. As Italians would have it, the day of fasting eventually became a night of feasting, with a 7 (or 10 or 13) course meal. Fish, of course, is the main ingredient in most dishes.
It’s unclear why “7” is the important number. Many (including our own Chef Neil) think it may have something to do with the Seven Sacraments. Others celebrate with 10 courses in honor of the 10 Stations of the Cross, or 13 in honor of the 12 apostles plus Jesus. Any number you choose, the point is to remind you of the reason for the season and to celebrate the coming of Christmas with family and friends.
Some of Chef Neil’s favorite dishes form the centerpieces of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The best seafood comes from the southern, Campania region of Italy, where Chef Neil grew up. There’s nothing like fresh Mediterranean seafood and shellfish over a bowl of al dente pasta, drizzled in cold pressed olive oil and tossed in San Marzano tomato sauce. For Chef Neil, it brings him back home, which is where everyone wants to be on Christmas Eve.
While we don’t have a whole feast laid out for you, you can try Cucina Antica Linguine Scoglio for a taste of an Italian Christmas Eve.
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