This week on December 25th my family and I engaged in that most hallowed of Jewish traditions … a night out with dear friends at a Chinese restaurant. We joke about it, but there really is something to digging into a plate of sesame chicken while it seems the rest of the country is home partaking of a Christmas ham. Perhaps it’s just a chance to have a night out when the streets are virtually empty, or maybe there is a deeper meaning.
Google search data seems to confirm that the phenomenon is real. On December 25th the searches for “Chinese food” spike to their highest levels. No other day comes close. Of course Jews aren’t the only ones going to the Chinese restaurants on Christmas. We are probably joined by the unreligious, those who didn’t get an invite to a Christmas gathering, and families whose traditional dinner was eaten by the dogs, like the one immortalized in the film A Christmas Story.
The Jewish-Chinese food affinity seems to go beyond convenience. Yes, Chinese restaurants are usually among the few that are open on the holiday, but surely Jews could stay in and eat a home cooked meal. Why has it become an almost sacred tradition to eat in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day?
A number of reasons have been offered by various authorities. One possibility is that “the Jews and Chinese were the two largest non-Christian immigrant communities in America” and so they joined together each year in December in a kind of solidarity in the face of the Christmas onslaught.
While Jews and Chinese have some similarities, the communities have had different experiences in America, particularly with regard to food. While certain Jewish foods have penetrated the mainstream, most notably bagels, the Jewish restaurant never became ubiquitous outside of a few major metropolitan centers. On the other hand, Chinese restaurants are found everywhere, down to the smallest towns in middle America.
But that may be changing. The number of Chinese restaurants in large cities is declining as first generation Chinese-Americans are unable to pass their establishments on to their children. The second generation, with more economic opportunities from college and graduate degrees, are entering the professions or tech entrepreneurship. This is a typical immigration story, one that the Jewish community is familiar with. Just as Jews from Eastern Europe didn’t come to America to be peddlers or sweatshop workers, Chinese didn’t come to this country to be chefs. The first generation always takes whatever work will provide a good education and upward mobility for the children.
Chinese food on Christmas is more than just an American Jewish tradition; it’s the living example of the mix of cultures that makes our country unique. It doesn’t stand outside of mainstream America. As the author Lillian Li writes, it has “become as culturally American as milk and cookies for Santa.”