For many Italian-Americans, the high point of Christmas is the Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes. This custom, however, has a special added significance for me personally. It was my father’s last meal. On Christmas Eve 1977, after enjoying the traditional meal my mother had prepared, my father went to bed where he fell into a wakeless sleep. Since then, the Feast of the Seven Fishes was more than part of my Italian-American heritage, but a remembrance of my father.
OK, I know this is not the stuff of holiday greeting cards, Merry Christmas – my dad died, but I am telling you this seemingly sad story for a reason, emphasis on the word seemingly. The culinary delights my mother produced in her kitchen are beyond my powers of description, but that is not what was – and still is – important to me about the Feast of Seven Fishes. Between the main course and dessert, there was a respite from all the eating during which the women would head off into the kitchen to get a jump on cleaning up as well as prepare the desserts (note the plural). This was when my father, sitting at the head of the table, would begin to hold court.
Surrounded by the rest of the family, he would tell stories of the old days. This is where I learned the family folklore, stories of my parent’s youth, memories of their parents, recollections of important events in the family history. The conversation would continue as the desserts were served. Even after the eating was done the oft-repeated stories would continue over the half-empty anisette bottles, glasses with the dried last drops of wine, empty dishes save the crumbs of pie crusts, and espresso stained demitasse cups. When I was a little guy, just a kid, I would fall asleep there at the table on folded arms while my father’s voice shaped my dreams. Then, magically, I would wake in my bed the next morning to find that all the things I had circled in the Sears’ catalog had magically materialized under the family’s aluminum Christmas tree. Yes, we had an aluminum Christmas tree. It was a thing back then.
I describe this scene not just to evoke the memories of my late parents, but in answer to a question I was recently asked. While being interviewed by Ovunque Siamo, I was asked how, in the United States, we can preserve our culture. How can we avoid being so assimilated into the overall culture that we lose our Italianità, eating pineapple pizza and fettuccine Alfredo? I told the interviewer that we should follow the example of our Jewish friends. After all, think of Jewish history for a moment. For nearly the past 2000 years, they had no homeland, were victims of prejudice, and the objects of attempted systematic extermination. Yet, they survived as a people. Jewish culture persevered. Why? Their customs continually remind them of their ties with the past, with their heritage.
The Seder meal and the Maggid are two excellent examples. The Seder is a ceremonial meal that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The meal itself, the food that is served, the order of the meal, all remind the participants of the flight from Egypt. At one point in the meal, the Maggid, they retell the story of Exodus. This begins when the youngest person at the dinner asks four questions concerning the customs of the meal. This begins the telling of the story. It is significant that the youngest person there is asking the question. They are being taught by their elders, the other members of their family, how they became who they are. It reinforces their current generation’s connection with all those previous generations, back thousands of years.
The Feast of Seven Fishes is for many Italian-American families their Seder. During this meal, we tell stories of the past. We share with the younger members of the family our origins, our struggles, and our joys. By telling these tales every year, we reinforce our connection with our past, preserving our cultural identity.
We need to do this, not just for children and grandchildren, but to enrich our own lives.
I encourage you this Christmas, as you sprinkle the Parmigiano on your aglio olio or grab the last of the cannoli, share the stories of the old days. Get the older family members to talk. More than just repeat the family history, capture these stories for the future. Record them! Who doesn’t have a cell phone? Rather than capturing your cat falling off the end of the couch, capture your grandfather talking about coming here to the states or his home back in Brindisi. In future years, when the storyteller is gone, those recordings will become a valuable inheritance. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have the recordings of my father talking about when he met my mother or my mother about the loss of her father when she was an adolescent.
Earlier I had said that I had opened with a seemingly sad story. Although my father passed away on Christmas Eve, during that final Feast of the Seven Fishes he was in the midst of the people who loved him. They were a reminder of his life’s achievement. Yes, that night we told stories and laughed and teased one another. I should be so blessed to have such a lovely last meal, so should we all.
To read more about Italian and Italian-American culture read my book, Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American.