While you’re recovering from your 6:00 am Christmas wake up call followed by the awkward drive to someone’s parent’s house — a whole different tradition is going on. The tradition of Jewish families having Chinese food.
This literally happens every year. You can go to any Chinese restaurant in your town on Christmas Day, and it’s absolutely filled to capacity with Jews. Some joke that you could hold a meeting of your congregation’s Board Of Trustees in the dining room of Hop Sing’s. Actually, that’s not a joke… you probably could.
While some mistakenly refer to Hanukkah as the “Jewish Christmas”, those people are wrong and need to stop doing that. Not only is it spectacularly insulting, but it’s also wholly inaccurate. The Jewish Christmas is Chinese food.
There’s two components to this, and both of them are firmly rooted in the Ashkenazic Jewish enclaves of New York and Boston in the 1950’s — in addition to each city’s respective Chinatown.
When Ashkenazic Jews fled the persecutions in Eastern Europe and Russia in the early 20th century, like many other ethnic groups, they came to America with little more than they could carry on their person. Unlike other immigrants, Jews were especially looked down upon as they were not Christians — making them double outcasts.
As Chinese food became more popular in the 1950’s as an “exotic cuisine,” it was still pretty affordable. This is because the Chinese immigrants were in the same situation as the Jews, living in their own enclave. They served affordable food that brought back memories of home. When the non-Chinese community discovered this, nobody in Chinatown was going to stop them, because the more the merrier.
Eating Chinese food helped immigrant Jews have a feeling of belonging, as well as some measure of sophistication — still denied to them by much of America.
So what does this have to do with Christmas?
In the Old Country, people did their shopping one day at a time. The lack of reliable refrigeration and other poverty-related conditions made this a necessity. In America, many Jewish families continued this, purely out of habit and not knowing any other way. The week of Christmas presented a problem, since grocers often closed up shop for two days or sometimes more. What were the families going to do for dinner?
So you had a family with no groceries, who have been bored the entire day on account of not celebrating Christmas. Cabin fever started to set in, and eating out cured both problems in one fell swoop.
Chinese restaurateurs, who were also not Christian, were open and likely very confused as to why nobody was eating out. This meant that Chinese restaraunts were the only places open on Christmas Day. Jewish families flocked there, simply due to not having any other choices. They were hungry, and that’s who was open.
Here we are, decades later, and Jewish families across the country keep the same tradition. Because tradition is what keeps the fiddler on the roof.
You might enjoy turkey, ham, or even a goose. But we’re enjoying wonton soup, Peking duck, and all the egg rolls we can handle. All because nothing else was open…