Coming off the heels of Thanksgiving and the feast that it entails, many of us are already thinking of the feasts to come around the upcoming holidays. There are myriad traditions surrounding winter’s holidays from places around the world. One of my favorites is the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Aside from my love of seafood, one of the reasons I enjoy this tradition stems from the couple of years I was lucky enough to spend living in Italy where this tradition originates. This feast is also enjoyed on Christmas Eve, “La Vigilia” in Italian, which is a part of the holiday that was significant in my childhood as a nod to our Germanic roots. It’s also easy to love a feast such as this when you live in Maine and have access to an amazing variety of seafood — even in December.

The significance of fish in this feast stems in part from Catholic traditions such as not eating meat on Friday or, in this case, the eve of religious holidays. But in the years I spent in Italy, the Christmas feasts I enjoyed with friends there were not centered around fish. As it turns out, the holiday is more of an American-Italian tradition than one kept by those living in Italy. It is thought to have started amongst families from southern Italy immigrating to America who sought to continue to find ways to celebrate their seaside heritage.

As for why there are seven fishes, that too may be rooted in Catholic traditions, which place significance in the number seven. There are seven sacraments and seven deadly sins, for example. Why not seven fishes, too? There are so many options that, regardless of your traditions or heritage, it is a fun way to think of exploring new types of Maine seafood this winter. You can even spread out the seven dishes over seven days, as seven different dishes in one feast is a lot!

If you’re looking for what to include in those lucky seven choices, there is the gold standard of Maine seafood — lobster, which you can find fresh even in the wintertime. Other familiar favorites include cod and haddock. Then there are the less familiar ones like hake and monkfish, which are just as tasty and versatile and can be prepared any number of ways. Shellfish qualify, too — there are local clams which can be steamed, stuffed or turned into chowder. On the farmed side of things, oysters and mussels are delicious additions to the menu as well. And December is an especially lucky seafood month because it is Maine scallop season when you can get them harvested fresh from waters close to home.

Holidays are all about traditions, and no matter which culture or religion they celebrate, they often involve good food. Learning about these types of feasts is an easy way to be introduced to new cultures and to sometimes discover a new way to enjoy the local foods that we have here in Maine. So, this holiday season, don’t forget the fishes.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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