Eating Chinese Food on Christmas

Jewish Chinese Christmas

“While I’ve mostly spent Christmas Day with friends or my in-laws, I fully understand the desire to carve out our own secular traditions on a day so beloved by, seemingly, everyone in the country.”

Almost as Jewish as the tradition of eating Chinese food for Christmas is the tradition of wondering why we eat Chinese food for Christmas. The answer, put simply, is New York.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were a lot of people from both immigrant groups living in lower Manhattan. Neither was Christian. Chinese restaurants, then and now, are likely to be open on Christian holidays, so the story goes that Jewish people, looking for something to do when their places of work were closed went out for Chinese food.

And so, it became canon that that’s what Jews do. Old-timey comedians like Buddy Hackett joked about it. Thank you’s from Chinese restaurant owners to the Jewish community go viral every year (their authenticity dubious). Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan made a crack about it; Chuck Schumer chimed in. Academic careers have been made in the examination of this custom.

You know what else is a great Jewish tradition? Questioning things. It’s always felt a little too tidy and a little too cute, this narrative that every Christmas all the Jews trudge dutifully through quiet, snowy streets to their local Chinese, where the entire staff greets them. That’s a scene from A Christmas Story.

Jewish Chinese Christmas

Almost as Jewish as the tradition of eating Chinese food for Christmas is the tradition of wondering why we eat Chinese food for Christmas. The answer, put simply, is New York.

I don’t question the affinity between Jewish people and Chinese food in New York City. I’ve lived it and tasted it. Kosher Chinese restaurants still exist in Manhattan and outer Brooklyn. The connection is year-round and makes a certain kind of sense.

Scholars like sociologist Gaye Tuchman posit that this is because, while Chinese food may not be kosher, it is “safe treyf,” a phrase she coined in her 1992 paper “New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern.” There’s rarely dairy in Chinese food, so there’s no worry of it mixing with meat. Pork and shellfish are both prevalent, but because they’re cut up and cooked in, they’re not visible to diners.

Others, like Rabbi Joshua Elliott Plaut, PhD, who wrote A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, say that other immigrant-owned restaurants of lower Manhattan in the late 18th and early 19th century—notably, Italian—were heavily decorated with Christian imagery and symbolism. It’s not hard to imagine that people who fled religious persecution by Christians might have a hard time kicking back with a nice plate of ziti under Jesus on the cross.

I don’t question the affinity between Jewish people and Chinese food in New York City. I’ve lived it and tasted it. Kosher Chinese restaurants still exist in Manhattan and outer Brooklyn. The connection is year-round and makes a certain kind of sense.

And finally, none other than the queen of Jewish food, Joan Nathan, points out that there are similarities between Chinese food and what Eastern European Jews might have eaten: sweet and sour flavor combinations, custardy dishes and dumplings. (Plenty of East Asian migrants moved through China and Russia and into Eastern Europe, taking their foodways with them. The culinary connection predates New York.)

All of these reasons make good sense to me, and while I’ve mostly spent Christmas Day with friends or my in-laws, I fully understand the desire to carve out our own secular traditions on a day so beloved by, seemingly, everyone in the country.

But I think there’s something else at play here: I think, for Eastern European Jews in America, early-20th-century New York City represents a golden age of Judaica. In this time before the Holocaust, Jews safe from pogroms made up about a quarter of the city’s population. While they, of course, faced some discrimination, they were largely upwardly mobile. So, today, we still pepper our speech with Yiddish and look to what those Jews did and how those Jews acted for tradition. Especially for those of us whose relationship to Israel is fraught (or nonexistent), that time and that place feels like our origin story.

And Chinese food on Christmas? Well, it’s a nice story. It tells of a people who like to come together and celebrate over food, who reach out to our neighbors to learn their cultures and cuisines, who assimilate to holidays while getting creative to celebrate without losing our religion. If our holidays dictate that we gather and retell their stories, I guess Chinese Food Christmas is official.

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