La Vigilia And The Festival

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brisket holiday food
Hanukkah fare includes brisket (above), latkes and sufganiyot

Two similar yet distinctly unique holidays will merge this holiday season, as the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve for only the fourth time since 1900.

Amid Hanukkah’s nine candles in eight nights lies a celebration of the miracle of oil, which burned for eight days inside a temple under siege by enemies. As such, it is traditional to eat fried foods such as sufganiyot—jam-filled donuts—along with fried potato pancakes, well known as latkes. But the Festival of Lights also offers a rich array of Jewish comfort foods, including fork-tender beef brisket, smoked salmon, noodle kugel and matzo ball soup, along with flaky rugelach and those chocolate coins known as gelt.

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Latkes
class Hanukkah sufganiyot holiday food
Sufganiyot

It is customary to eat dairy foods on Hanukkah, in commemoration of the bravery of a woman named Judith (Yehudit), who was a Jewish widow during the time of the Maccabeean uprising. Judith seduced and killed the Assyrian commander Holifernes, general of the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar, thus saving her city of Bethulia.

The story goes that Judith fed the general salty cheese to make him thirsty and then offered him wine to quench his thirst, getting him so drunk that he fell asleep. Judith then grabbed a sword and decapitated him. For a people that honor feisty women, Judith is the cream that rose to the top.

The makeup of my personal heritage changes depending on the time of year. All year, I’m mostly Italian with traces of Scottish lineage—but when Christmastime arrives, I’m full-blown, 100 percent Italian.

Baby octopus is a popular feast item.
Baby octopus is a popular feast item.

I attribute this phenomenon to La Vigilia—or Feast of the Seven Fishes—when seven different seafood dishes grace the table late on Christmas Eve. It’s hard not to embrace one’s Italian heritage with the family passing around dishes loaded with linguine con le vongole (linguine with clams), baby octopus salad, baccala alla vesuviana (salt cod with tomatoes and capers), spaghetti con le cozze (spaghetti with mussels), shrimp and more.

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Linguine with clams
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Lobster thermidor

The significance of the number “seven” seems to be lost to time, as some Italian families pile on more than 10 dishes during this feast. As with many Italian food traditions, there is probably a religious aspect to the feast but plenty of Italians now use the epic seafood extravaganza to celebrate the closeness of family and friends. For many families, including my own, the fish feast would begin at around 10 or 11 p.m., many hours after the initial dinner that usually featured lasagna, antipasto and at least two roasted beasts.

Here on Long Island, there are plenty of families that mix Italian and Jewish heritages—especially at meal time. This Christmas Eve/Hanukkah is the perfect opportunity for culturally diverse culinary experiments. Get cooking—the holidays don’t fall on the same night again until 2027.

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