Christmas is often a time to think about sheep and lambs, oxen and even a Christmas goose.
But how many think of the Christmas carp?
For many of us, Christmas Day dinner often means a ham or a turkey, perhaps a beef roast or a capon.
Christmas eve food
But what do you have for Christmas Eve dinner?
In Catholic traditions, fish has been on the menu for many a Christmas Eve.
For example, in Portugal, Bacalhãu de Consoada (Christmas Eve cod) is the tradition. In Sweden, the julbord (holiday smorgasbord) must contain herring, usually three types, as well as salmon. In Ireland, the traditional fish served was ling. However, once many Irish needed to emigrate to the United States due to the Potato Famine — where there is no ling to be found — oysters were soon substituted. Since this had long been a traditional food both in New England and in southern states along the seaboard, oysters for Christmas Eve quickly became a tradition.
In Italy, especially southern Italy, as well as among many Italian-American families, la Vigilia (the Vigil — Christmas Eve) often sees the “feast of the seven fishes.” This means that the meal consists of seven courses of seafood — the types vary and can include cod, shrimp, clams and octopus.
And what about the Christmas carp?
In Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany — and other Eastern European countries — the Christmas carp is the food of Christmas Eve. In the past, the carp was brought home live and kept in the bathtub for several days before being killed for a fresh meal.
More specifically, why the focus on seafood?
Fast and abstain
Because, until 1983, the Catholic Church required its members to fast and abstain from meat on the Vigil of Christmas. The 1917 Code of Canon Law read: “The law of abstinence and fast together is to be observed on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays and Saturdays of Lent, the Ember days (all day), and on the Vigils of Pentecost, the Assumption, All Saints and the Nativity” (n. 1252 ).
In 1983, Pope John Paul II had the code changed and Christmas Eve was no longer a day of fast.
Fasting has been a religious tradition for centuries — and not just for Catholics. Our Jewish ancestors in faith also fasted — as do modern Jews on specific feast days. Muslims also fast, especially during the month of Ramadan.
Early Christians first fasted on Fridays in memory of the Lord Jesus’ death on a Friday. In the second century Christian teaching, the Didache (also called the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”), followers of Christ were told to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
While fasting on every Friday may not always have been observed in later centuries — and as the season of Lent developed — abstinence on Fridays remained common. In 866 A.D., Pope Nicholas I made the Friday abstinence from meat a universal rule of the church. And, by the 12th century, abstinence and fasting — both as signs of penance as well as a memorial of Good Friday — had become common Lenten practices. Most people were bound by the rules, even children as young as 12. However, many exemptions were allowed: such as for travelers, students, the sick, and even those with “physically demanding jobs.”
A greater sacrifice
But why give up meat? St. Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th century theologian, explained that, since animals walked on land and breathed air, they were more like humans than fish were and therefore their meat provided greater enjoyment and nourishment. So giving up animal meat was a greater sacrifice.
The Eastern Rite churches — as well as Byzantine Catholics — observe a fast prior to Christmas. It is called the “Nativity Fast” and even excludes some seafood — specifically, fish with backbones. The Antiochan Church in North America’s website (antiochan.org ) explains the purpose of fasting is to free us from “dependence on worldly things.” It should also remind us that we “fast and turn our eyes toward God in his holy church. Fasting and prayer go together.”
The emphasis on fish also serves to remind us of Jesus. The Lord called fishermen as disciples, multiplied loaves and fish and ate fish after his resurrection. Also, in the early church, the agape feast included fish. Besides bread and wine, early Christians shared a fish in this communal meal that followed early Christian gatherings to celebrate the Eucharist.
Jesus and fish
Finally, Jesus himself is identified with a fish. Early Christians had many favorite titles for Jesus.
One of these titles “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” In Greek, the written language of early Christians, this becomes “Iesous Christos, Theou Hyios, Soter.” Taking the first letters from this phrase – I, Ch, T, Hy and S – will spell the Greek word, “Ichthys.” (In Greek, it is IXOYC.) Christians often identified themselves by using this fish symbol and it is one of the most common symbols in the Roman catacombs, dating back to the third century.
So when you prepare your holiday feast this year, remember the fish and its humble origins and glorious connections.
Sources: fisheaters.com; antiochan.org; eataly.com; history.com; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; the 1983 Code of Canon Law; the 1917 Code of Canon Law; polishamericancenter.org; ewtn.com; orthodoxchristian.com; PorterBriggs.com; chicagotribune.com; americanfoodroots.com; the guardian.com; “The New Jerome Biblical Dictionary”; “An Introduction to the New Testament;” npr.org; and ChristianityToday.com