I'll admit it, as a child, I really didn't appreciate taking part in The Feast of The Seven Fishes, the traditional Italian-American meal served on Christmas Eve that involves no meat.
I was a picky eater, and the mere thought of dining on eels, smelts and a variety of other exotic creatures from the sea was enough to make me cringe. Instead, I stuck to salads and plain bowls of buttered noodles as I wondered why we couldn't have a ham or turkey like everyone else I knew.
As I got older – and became more open to other foods -- I began to appreciate the tradition behind the meal, which, in my family, dates to the early 1920s.
At that time, the Cangi and the Bruni families settled on Larimer Avenue in East Liberty, a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood, and dinner on Christmas Eve always involved seafood.
My dad recalls eating peppers stuffed with tuna fish or Baccala, the Italian word for salt cod, on Christmas Eve. In one particularly memorable year, he watched in awe as his grandfather exited Labriola's Italian Market on Larimer Avenue with a giant black eel draped around his neck. The eel, which was on its way to have the women of the family dice and fry it, was so long it touched the ground as he walked.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes started out at my great-grandfather's house, moved to my pap's house and now takes place at my uncle's home. While many things have changed over the years, Christmas Eve remains startlingly the same. We still eat fish, play cards and talk – loudly.
When I started dating my husband, I was introduced to a new -- at least for me --Christmas Eve tradition.
John comes from a Slovak-American family. On their Christmas Eve, the family eats machanka, a sour mushroom soup, followed by bobalki, or baked dough balls. The bobalki comes in two varieties, poppy seed or sour kraut. The family also has oplatky, a communion-like wafer stamped with a nativity scene. The wafer is spread with honey and the head of household also dips his thumb in honey to makes the sign of the cross on everyone's forehead before they dig in.
In John's family, everyone also is given a piece of garlic to swallow with the honey. Man, I'll never forget my first year eating with them. As the newest addition, I got the biggest piece of garlic.
The older I get, the more I cherish these traditions – and I'm definitely looking forward to a mixed meal of bolbalki and smelts tomorrow. However, I want to know about your Christmas customs. Please feel free to share your holiday traditions in the comment section below!
Editor's Note: This column first appeared on Cranberry Patch on Dec. 23, 2010. This year, I want to dedicate it to my pap, Anthony Bruni, a truly inspiring husband, father and grandfather. This will be our first Christmas without him. We miss you every day, Pap.