Feasts and Family: Europeans celebrate Christmas Eve with food and humility

Every branch on a tree sprouts from the same roots, but not every branch is the same. This idea of same roots, different branches can be applied to three Christmas Eve feasts celebrated in Europe: France’s 13 Desserts, Poland’s Wigilia and Italy’s Feast of Seven Fishes.

Although culture, location and time have made the traditions different, these three feasts have the same base, the Catholic religion. For a long time, the Catholic Church forbade meat to be eaten on Christmas Eve. In Poland and parts of France and Italy, the meatless meal was turned into a celebratory feast. The role of symbolism in these Christmas Eve meals is great, expressed primarily through the belief that a certain number of sacred dishes must be served.

Sweet celebration

When you hear of the 13 Desserts of the Provence region in France, you likely think of 13 cakes and pastries. However, the 13 Desserts celebrated on Christmas Eve is composed of far simpler sweets.

“The idea is not to bake something fancy,” said Anna Amelung, a French teacher at University City High School. “The point is to celebrate the fruits of the season. If one really wants to stick to the tradition, one has to use what is grown locally and seasonally.”

Although the desserts have changed over time, O’Fallon, Mo., resident Isabelle Heidbreder recalled the original 13 desserts she had while growing up in Provence: pompe à huile (a flat pastry made with olive oil and orange flower water), green melon, quince paste (a jelly-like dessert), black and white nougats, raisins, dates, oranges and the four mendiants. Mendiant means “monk” in French, and the mendiants – dried figs, hazelnuts, raisins and almonds – have the colors of different orders of French monks. Other desserts may include apples, bananas, candied fruit, apricots, homemade jellies, grapes, little cookies and most recently, bûche de Noël, a log-shaped cake.

Although the tradition varies, many partakers begin Christmas Eve with the gros souper, or the grand supper. This is traditionally composed of meatless dishes, such as fish, shellfish, gratins, vegetables, omelets, aïoli, snails and goat cheese. The meal is topped off with the 13 desserts. The table for this grand Christmas Eve feast is traditionally covered with three tablecloths on top of each other and three candles representing the Holy Trinity. In the middle of table, Heidbreder remembered a big, round bread surrounded by 12 little breads.

Tradition calls for 13 desserts and 13 breads because there were 12 apostles, plus Jesus, at the Last Supper. The number of desserts may vary, though, depending on what fruits and nuts were abundant in the area. “You might have more than 13 desserts, but for good luck you are only supposed to eat 13 and you keep count,” Heidbreder said. “And there will be a communication going around the table to make sure everyone gets that No. 13.”

A holiday of work and play

There is a lot of work to be done on Christmas Eve for the Polish. Families spend the day cooking, baking and doing housework, so the next two holidays can be devoted to eating, relaxing and visiting. Despite the busy schedule, the Polish generally consider Wigilia, the traditional Christmas Eve feast, more important than Christmas Day itself.

Ewa Krupinska, a St. Charles resident who moved from northeast Poland to the United States five years ago, said her family always prepares 12 meatless dishes for Wigilia. These 12 dishes represent the 12 apostles or the 12 good months of the year.

Before digging into the food, the family shares the oplatek. They break apart this thin wafer, similar to altar bread, and wish good wishes for the year to come. Ewa Bachminska, who came to St. Louis from Poland to study music in 2000, said her family would then eat the feast in stages. They would start with barszcz z uszkami, a beet broth with mushroom-filled dumplings, and move on to fried fish, fish and jelly, and potatoes. For dessert they would have poppy-seed cake and gingerbread cookies. Because the food varies slightly from region to region, other dishes may include mushroom and plum soup, pickled herring, carp, lentils and sauerkraut, beets with horseradish and pierogi.

The setup for the Wigilia table is important. Krupinska said they must have a white tablecloth with dried grass or hay on the tablecloth in memory of baby Jesus in the manger. The tradition of leaving an extra spot for an unexpected guest is also widespread across Poland.

Feast of abundance

Because Catholics couldn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve and there was an abundance of fish in southern Italy, it made sense to have a giant fish feast. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is particularly prevalent in southern Italy.

The Feast of Seven Fishes is really a poor man’s holiday, according to Giuseppina Lombardo of South County. Lombardo, who was born in Sicily, noted that it’s said the tradition began as a cost-saving measure; each family member went to the ocean and brought something back for the feast. This was cheaper than buying meat (“The ocean is free,” she noted), which was saved for the Christmas meal.

Traditionally, baccalà, or dried salted cod, is the most common Christmas Eve dish for southern Italians. You must soak the fish for a day or two to get rid of the salt, which is used as a preservative. Other popular dishes include octopus with prunes and stewed vegetables, clams with pasta, shrimp, whitefish, swordfish, squid, mussels and sardines. Some families put all seven fishes in one stew called cioppino.

The reason behind the number seven is a little unclear. Some say it is the number of days it took to create the earth; others attribute it to the seven sacraments, the seven holy gifts, the seven sorrows of the Blessed Mother or the seven hills of Rome.

Florissant’s Marianne Peri Sack, English editor of Il Pensiero newspaper, said she never celebrated with a certain number of fish dishes while growing up with her Italian heritage in St. Louis, though she always ate fish on Christmas Eve. “People come from different little villages,” Sack said. “In every little village they do things a little different. Nothing is the exact same.”

Maryann Coletti of The Hill would regularly celebrate the holiday at her grandmother’s house with 20 to 30 family members and friends. She remembered the women being in the kitchen most of the day cooking and then serving the kids and dads. When she moved to Lohman, a small town in central Missouri, in 1980, she tried to continue the tradition on her own.

“I scrambled to try to find seven fishes,” Coletti said. “There was no fresh fish, so I had to get creative. I had tuna fish on top of pasta, fish sticks, catfish and frozen shrimp.”