In Fairmont the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival is a time for family, friends, and food.

Every Christmas Eve in America, Italian American grandmothers stand over the stove, stirring giant pots of fish stew. Uncles toss chunks of calamari into a deep pan filled with popping, sizzling oil. Aunts arrange dried, salted cod on a platter, turning it this way and that in a losing battle to make it look appealing. Kids are tasked with setting the table with all the dishes, bowls, and utensils the family will need to devour a decadent spread with many courses.

This is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the traditional Italian American seafood feast that takes place on Christmas Eve. In any culture the recipe for the ideal holiday meal is always the same: one part friends and family, one part decadent and delicious foods that you don’t see any other time of year, and just enough pomp and circumstance to make the whole thing feel really special. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is no different; it just includes more seafood than most Christmas dinners.

No one is quite sure how exactly the Feast of the Seven Fishes came to be. Certainly it originated in the southern part of Italy, near the coast, but the tradition is practiced more often—and with more gusto—here in America than it is back in the old country. It probably has something to do with the fact that Catholics abstain from eating meat on the eve of certain holy days, including Christmas. But no one is quite sure why the feast includes that particular number of fish. For the seven sacraments? The seven days it took God to make the world? The Seven hills of Rome? For most Italian Americans the tradition is so deeply ingrained that the reasoning doesn’t matter. And the more fish the better, anyway.

That was the thought Shannon and Robert Tinnell had a decade ago, when they started the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival in Fairmont. The husband and wife both have Italian heritage; and Robert’s family, especially, has held a big seafood feast every Christmas Eve. In 2005 the couple published a comic novel called “Feast of the Seven Fishes: The Collected Comic Strip and Italian Holiday Cookbook.” In it Robert tells the story of a big Italian family preparing the big holiday feast, and Shannon provides recipes for traditional Italian dishes. “After the book came out, we got to talking with people in town,” Shannon says. “And we said we have this book and we know all about the feast, and we don’t have any kind of festival in Fairmont. Why don’t we do one?” Every year since, on the second weekend in December, thousands of people have descended on Fairmont to toast to the Christmas season with good cheer—and a lot of fish. Fairmont is an Italian American hub in West Virginia so it was a natural fit. “The Italian heritage is really big here,” says Jackie Fitch, the festival’s event planner. “It all started when the Italians came over to work in the coal mines and made their homes in Fairmont and Clarksburg. So all these years later we have all these people with Italian heritage and a lot of Italian traditions in the community.”

The centerpiece of the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival is an evening-long cooking demonstration on Friday. The feast is one of the most intimidating projects a home cook can encounter so Shannon breaks it down into brief cooking lessons and live demonstrations, with the help of some local experts.  “We have professional chefs; we have some people who do it every year. And sometimes it’s just that old lady from down the street who really knows how to cook,” Shannon says.

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Attendees pay an entrance fee that covers their entertainment for the evening—two Italian gentlemen from Fairmont sing and play polkas on the accordion—plus a glass of wine and hefty samples of every dish. “It’s very important to me that people be eating while they’re there,” Shannon says. “If you go into any Italian household, you’re going to eat.” The idea is to try to recreate the joy of a family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes on a larger scale while giving locals lessons on the best way to prepare authentic Italian dishes for Christmas Eve. “It’s like getting a cooking lesson from your Italian grandmother or aunt,” Shannon says. “The objective is to preserve those traditional Italian food ways and to have some fun with it.”

To keep it interesting, they’ll sometimes include variations on a classic dish. Last year, for example, there was a demonstration on making a gluten-free version of traditional Italian cookies. But for the most part, the goal is to showcase only authentic Italian dishes that are appropriate for Christmas Eve. “The other day someone said, ‘I want to make flambé,’” Shannon says. “And I’m like, ‘But that’s French.’ Yet the friend argued that it would make a great presentation. And it might—but it’s French so we can’t do it. We try to keep it traditional.”

On that Saturday Monroe Street in downtown Fairmont is taken over by a big street festival, complete with arts and crafts, music and dancing, and food. There’s also a market where local artisans sell their wares—the perfect place to pick up a last-minute Christmas gift. The Festival is selective when it comes to admitting vendors, and nothing for sale is mass-produced. It’s all high-quality work made by hand, mostly by locals. The Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival is dedicated to ensuring that every part of the festival is authentically Italian or at least a central part of the Italian American experience and that everything is high quality and local. This is the place to go if you want homemade cannoli and a latte or some Italian sausage with hot peppers. “We want the old world feel,” Jackie says. “When you come to downtown Fairmont, we want it to be filled with the old Italian traditions.”

Written by Shay Maunz  | Photographed by Carla Witt Ford