What do you eat on Christmas Eve? Are you having a meat-free Christmas dinner?
Do you follow the traditional no meat Christmas Eve dinner making a fish feast? And have you ever wondered why we do this? And there are so many fish dishes to choose from.
Certainly, Christmas Eve is a time of celebration.
It might be the ending of a pre-Christmas fast, it could be an opportunity to show off your culinary skills, but for many of us, it is a time to create a meatless Christmas Eve dinner.
The tradition of a Catholic fasting and prayer goes back to the very early Christians. It carried on through the religious establishments and in every-day life into medieval times, honoring the Vigil of the Virgin.
And we continue to enjoy our meatless Christmas eve to this day.
Roman Catholic Traditions and Heritage
The Catholic religion has its own beliefs and ceremonies, places to worship, and a moral code with rewards (Heaven) and punishment (Hell). To gain forgiveness for your sins is one reason why Catholics fast, but not all fasts are penitential.
Saints days have been pasted onto older pagan holidays, which has left us with feast days – and days of fasting. There is a long-standing tradition of a no meat Christmas dinner.
In the early Catholic church, fasting was common. These older traditions, following the examples of early saints, have been incorporated into modern life, perhaps relaxed a little making Christmas Eve a festive occasion.
Christmas eve comes at the end of the Phillip Fast, so people are hungry. Fish makes a great alternative to meat, although there are also many Christmas vegetarian recipes as alternatives.
The Catholic fasting and prayer is a preparation for the celebrations on Christmas day. It opens up a spiritual space for God to enter in. Traditionally, Catholics refrain from eating meat products, and often butter or dairy foods. The fish is fried in oil, not butter.
Catholics believe in the immaculate conception, and in transubstantiation, the wine and wafer become the body and blood of Christ at communion.
The Catholic Church has left us with stupendous religious buildings – the cathedrals, churches, and monasteries. Some have fantastic ornamentation – wonderful screens, statues, and illustrated manuscripts. Many of the greatest paintings depict religious scenes.
And the music from Gregorian plainchant to the great masses of composers like Haydn and Beethoven.
The pope still has enormous influence. His stance on abortion and contraception has influenced many people.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American Christmas Eve dinner – featuring fish.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is not a religious feast day although it has its origins in the Roman Catholic practice of fasting.
This tradition started in Southern Italy and Sicily, and it has become popular in many families of Italian descent who live in America.
It didn’t get its name from Italy, however.
Called “La Vigilia” after the vigil to St Mary. This was a day of Catholic fasting and prayer in Southern Italy. So, people were hungry by evening – and if you can’t eat meat – what better alternative than fish?
And fish was plentiful in Southern Italy, so the practical solution was pasta and fish.
Italy used to be a divided nation, North and the Kingdom of the Two Sicily’s in the south. Then in 1861 Italy united. This was disastrous for the South which saw their resources and wealth transferred to the north.
Poverty and crime were rife – between 1880 and 1924 four million Italians emigrated to America. They brought their Italian Christmas Eve traditions of a no meat Christmas Eve dinner with them.
And it was here that the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” acquired its name.
But why seven fishes – what is so magical about the number seven?
Maybe it’s God’s number? Perhaps it reminds us that Mary and Joseph took seven days in their journey to Nazareth? Or maybe because of the seven sacraments – or the seven deadly sins?
Many families ignore the number seven and chose ten – for the stations of the cross, or 12 which refers to the number of apostles.
However, many families simply use what is available and perhaps serve a fish stew. Each family decides how to serve their Italian-American Christmas eve dinner.
The Twelve Dishes of Poland
Christmas eve dinner in Poland is very special. After a day spent fasting, people are hungry. A prayer, a sharing of the Christmas wafer – good luck wishes – and it’s time for the feast.
After eating, it’s time to unpack presents beneath the brightly decorated Christmas tree.
Most dinners have 12 dishes, which vary depending on where in Poland you live.
It wasn’t always 12 dishes. In ages past, you might serve three, five, or seven dishes – always an odd number. Odd because of the ancient belief in magic.
Why 12 now? This probably comes from wealthy families and referred to the number of apostles. And there are 12 months in the year, The 12 dishes refer to each month and tasting every dish gave one a year’s good luck.
Christmas eve dinner usually included soup, often fishhead soup or sour rye, small dumplings called uzska served with borscht or sauerkraut, fish such as carp, and stuffed mushrooms.
Kutia is another favorite and consists of groats, cabbage, peas, and poppy seeds, (which were believed to soothe the souls of the dead).
Cabbage features prominently – and of course, there is no red meat.
Silesian gingerbread is popular and whatever else the meal contains it almost always included a dried fruit kompot.
Superstitions on this day include the belief that if you cried on Christmas eve you would go on crying till the next Christmas and if you put a carp’s scale into your wallet – that ensured a year of plenty.
And some families believe that the souls of dead sit at the table – and the meal may be eaten in silence to honor them.
Fasting and Abstinence
Feast, fast or abstain?
For a Roman Catholic, a feast day means a day for celebrations and reflection – often about the relevant saint. The food is a secular addition.
The liturgical calendar has days for Catholic fasting and prayer. These were part of the early Christian practices – usually on Wednesdays and Fridays. Monasteries had fish-ponds for Friday’s abstinence from meat.
Traditional Catholic fasting has a spiritual meaning, a penance for sins, a change of heart.
Christians have two major fasts – Lent and Phillip’s fast.
St Phillip is the patron saint of joy and humor. His feast is celebrated on 14th November.
Phillip’s fast is part of Orthodox and Catholic Church tradition – the Orthodox Church has 40 days of repentance and abstinence from November the 15th to December 24th, whilst in the West, it started on 1st or the 10th December.
Sometimes the money saved was donated to the poor.
During the fast, some days are free of restrictions and others forbid certain foods typically meat, dairy, and eggs.
The traditional Catholic Christmas Eve dinner derives from this.
Lent is the other great fast – and many people give up something, not necessarily food. It starts on Ash Wednesday. And continues for 40 days (excluding Sundays) and represents the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.
In addition to these major fasts, Advent, Ember Days, the Rogation Days, Fridays, and vigils all require abstinence. The vigils include that of All Saints, Christmas eve, the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception, and the Vigil of the Assumption.
In the United States often Ash Wednesday and Good Friday plus the Fridays in Lent are fast days.
The Rise of Vegetarianism
In the early Christian church, vegetarianism was common. Some religious orders had strict rules against eating meat – like the Franciscans, Trappists, and Cistercians.
In most developed countries, people are becoming more aware of vegetarianism and veganism (where animal products are not used at all). America is different. The number of vegetarians remains the same as in 1999, around 5% of the population.
However, many people eat less meat. In Britain, around one-third of dinners do not contain meat. There are an increasing number of meatless products to buy, and many Christmas vegetarian recipes are available.
Giant American firms like Tyson Foods are developing meat-free products. And thanks to the internet, there is increased access to vegetarian recipes and dietary advice.
Why do people decide to eat less meat?
One major reason is that at last governments are recognizing that animals are sentient beings – not just unfeeling property.
This raises the whole issue of animal cruelty in the meat industry and is probably the number one reason why people have decided to adopt non-meat diets.
Our concern for our environment is another reason for shunning meat.
Breeding cattle produces methane -a greenhouse gas. Growing a plant-based diet causes less damage to our atmosphere.
It takes 15,455 liters of water to produce one kg of beef, but only 3,400 liters per kg of rice, and a tenth of that for beer!
Economics also plays a role, a plant-based diet is generally cheaper than one containing meat.
And the good news – when you eat less meat you are less likely to suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes – and to remain slimmer.