Christmas Eve is the best night of the holiday season -- at least for Italian-Americans who turn the word family -- famiglia -- into a verb for La Festa dei Setti Pesci (The Feast of Seven Fishes).

Growing up in Providence, I can remember my mother telling my twin brother and two older sisters, "Tonight we family together in honor of the Savior's birth. Be good, please, because your father would like just un' ora (one hour) of peace in this house for la festa."

I was a young altar boy at St. Agnes Church where Irish, Italian and other immigrant families practiced the Catholic faith, so I knew why the baby Jesus was born. However, I never found in my Catechism book where it was written that we had to eat seven plates of fish to consecrate the birth of Christ.

It was one of the real mysteries dogging my formative years. Today, I often wonder how dear mother got us to mangia with all the heavenly grace of angels as dish after dish of squid, calamari, smelts, fried cod, baked haddock, shrimp casserole, and spaghetti and clams kept appearing from a kitchen smaller than a Volkswagen.

Of course, it didn't take long to put all the mysteries aside -- we figured they'd solve themselves as we grew older -- and Dad usually got his hour of peace even though he and Uncle Frankie, a bit tipsy from tasting their homemade vino, were the most animated when all sat down at the beautifully decorated table.


Mom would gently pin a white apron over Dad's shirt and tie. Aunt Margaret would do the same for Uncle Frankie, whose girth required a double apron. We joked they were window drapes. It didn't matter though; every year Dad and Uncle Frankie, laughing, talking and drinking, would finish the three-hour meal covered in shrapnel blasts of pink and red tomato sauce and purple wine polka dots. I could have been Andy Warhol Campanini if I had the mindset to save and market the fashion line of 1960s La Festa artwork!

Dad and Uncle Frankie are long gone from the holiday table, but they're never forgotten.

This year Uncle Sully, 95, will sit in the family patriarch's chair and my mother, Dorothy, 93, will sit to his right. (She spent two weeks in the hospital for a bladder infection recently and rebounded nicely to make the clam sauce. Glory to God in the highest!)

What was once a gathering of 36 family members has slowly -- and somewhat sorrowfully -- been reduced through the years. Come Monday night, however, the Campanini-Liberatore-DuClos-Morse clan will realize its first population boom in years, thanks to the addition of four new children at the table.

Rocky, Ethan, Alyssa and John Paul will get their first look at baked stuffed squid and other Italian delicacies. In the years ahead, when La Festa dei Setti Pesci actually takes hold of their young lives like it did mine six decades ago, they'll probably question if God brought them to the right planet, parents and family. That's when I'll guide them through a new mystery, telling them, "If you don't eat the fish, Santa Claus won't smell the house and he'll fly right over it without delivering any gifts. The baby Jesus will cry."

Maybe they'll believe me. Maybe they won't. However, I'm betting the family tradition of La Festa remains a strong family tradition, seven dishes of fish and all.

  • The tastes and textures of La Festa and Christmas Day meals should not intimidate wine lovers and cooks. Keep it simple and fun. We'll be enjoying plenty of crisp Mionetto Prosecco ($13.99) with the different courses of fish. A bottle of 2007 Tolaini Valdisanti, a Super Tuscan red blend, will be on the table for red sauce dishes. Remember, a dry sparkling champagne or Riesling also fit well. As for beef dinners, a big Cabernet Sauvignon from California or Chile will hit the spot, as will a 100 percent Syrah from Saint Cosme Cotes-du-Rhone ($16.99).

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good vino!

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