Why eat fish at christmas?

Fish is a natural part of the Christmas menu in most families. However, only a few people today know why this is so. Here you can find out where this tradition originated and what symbolic power lies behind eating fish at Christmas time.

Christmas is the most important holiday in the Christian-based world. Almost all customs that have characterized the (pre)Christmas season for centuries have their origins in Christian liturgy. This ranges from lighting the candles on the four Sundays of Advent, to the festival of lights on St. Martin’s Day, to the beautiful carols on the Christmas holidays.

However, it is often forgotten that the sequence of dishes is also closely linked to Christian traditions. If you ask about typical Christmas dishes today, you often hear that on Christmas Eve there will be fish or the less elaborate version of sausages with potato salad, followed by poultry and game dishes in the next few days. However, only a few know why this is so and that there is a reason for it at all.

Fasting during Advent

Üor many centuries, fasting was the order of the day during Advent (not until the beginning of the 20th century). At the beginning of the twentieth century the Catholic Church lifted the fasting commandment). Christmas, after all, celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, which represents the coming of God to earth, making it one of the most important events in the Christian church year. The weeks before should be used by believers to strengthen their faith and reflect on Christian values.

Religious fasting is not primarily about dietary prohibitions, but primarily about temporarily abstaining from worldly pleasures and sinful habits that might distract from the dialogue with God. The prohibition of certain foods during this time is only to practice renunciation and to encourage concentration on the essentials.

Giovanni Lafranco – Miracle of the bread and fish [public domain]

Why fish?

The fasting rules are extensive and regulate exactly what can be eaten on certain days week after week. The most important commandment, however, is to avoid meat during this period. And therein already lies the origin for the traditional fish dish on Christmas Eve. Fish was allowed to be eaten during the fasting period, and since the fast originally began only on the 1st day of the fast. Christmas Day, the 25. December, was broken, a fish dish was an easy solution to celebrate Christmas Eve with a feast without ending the fast prematurely.

Moreover, the fish plays a special role in Christian symbolism. A biblical story says that Jesus made so much food out of five loaves and two fish that 5000 starving people were satiated by it. In addition, the stylized fish has long been used by Christians worldwide as an identifying symbol, as the Greek word for fish is an acronym for the Christian creed.

Christmas carp in many varieties

According to tradition, carp is prepared for Christmas dinner. Why it is carp, of all fish, may be because it is a native fish that is relatively easy to obtain. In addition, many monasteries maintained their own carp breeding and could thus easily provide for themselves.

The preparation of carp differs significantly in different regions of Germany. While the fish in the south is traditionally cut into pieces, breaded and fried, in the north is the variant "carp blue" very common. For this, the carp is gutted and then carefully cooked with scales in boiling water. This gives it a bluish coloration, which has given this method of preparation its name. Another option is to stuff the gutted carp with potatoes and seasonal vegetables and then roast it in the oven.

Regardless of the preparation, simple side dishes such as boiled potatoes, carrots and celery, potato salad or cucumber salad are prepared to accompany the carp. In Thuringia, the traditional Thuringian dumplings make the feast complete.

Customs around the Christmas carp

Regardless of the Christian meaning, some customs have also developed around the Christmas carp. With their coin-like shape, the fish’s scales represent monetary blessings and in some regions are kept in the wallet as a good luck charm for the new year.

In Silesia it was again a tradition to bury the leftover bones at the roots of the fruit trees in the garden, so that they would be rich in fruit in the coming year. And an old belief says that there is a moon shaped stone in the eye of a carp, which will bring the finder special luck in the next year.

Fish as a festive meal at Christmas

Despite the lifting of the fasting ban, fish remains a popular Christmas food. However, carp is less and less often the focus of this process. Nowadays it can often be salmon, pike perch or cod. Since many fish stocks suffer from overfishing, we recommend looking for the MSC seal when buying fish. The seal is awarded to fisheries that demonstrably fish sustainably and do not exploit overfished stocks. How to enjoy the festive fish with a clear conscience.

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