Some families have Christmas traditions involving Sugar Plum Fairies, whereas others have a tradition involving plum sauce or hoisin. The sound of Chopsticks Dec. 25 does not involve a piano; it is eating utensils digging in. For about 100 years, having Chinese food is how American Jews celebrate Christmas. As they said in Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s tradition.”
In fact, when Justice Elena Kagan was asked during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing where she was on Christmas, her matter of fact reply was, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
There are a variety of reasons that the tradition came to be. First, Jews have had a long love affair with Chinese food. Chinese dishes typically do not include dairy. Really religious Jews who keep kosher do not consume meat and dairy at the same meal. So long before the food industry started labeling and producing kosher products, Chinese food was as close to kosher food that many Jewish immigrants were able to find. (They stayed away from non-kosher items like pork or shellfish in their orders.) Other ethnic foods, including Italian and Mexican cuisines, tend to mix dairy and meat in single dishes.
In the early 1900s, there were four large immigrant populations in New York – the Jews, Irish, Italians and Chinese who each had their enclaves, restaurants and cultural traditions. A big dividing line culturally was Christmas. The Jews and Chinese did not celebrate it and somehow the tradition arose that the Chinese restaurants stayed open on Christmas catering to their Jewish customers.
Fast forward 100 years and other populations have immigrated here. Some non-conformists now go for Indian food on Christmas. In addition, even Orthodox Jews now flock to the country’s burgeoning pool of kosher Chinese restaurants, which do not even have pork and shellfish in their kitchens. But, Jews in many cities have made reservations for Christmas dinner at a favorite Chinese joint. Most are so packed that night that even ones that do not normally take reservations often will for Dec. 25; it is the Chinese food equivalent of Black Friday.
Several sources report that the tradition is so ingrained that data indicates how popular Chinese food has become for Christmas. Google reports that interest in Chinese food noticeably spikes considerably every Christmas, according to their search trends for the past decade. They indicate every year that no other time period even comes close in searches for Chinese food info, restaurants, etc.
GrubHub also verified the increased popularity of Chinese food this time of year. Chinese food is reportedly 152 percent more popular on Christmas Day than any other time of the year. Actually, the next two most popular days for ordering Chinese food are Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
The Google and GrubHub data seem to indicate many other people besides Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas. Realistically there are not enough Jews in the U.S. to account for all the Chinese food business on Christmas Day. But, there is something nice to having a traditional way the family celebrates Christmas, even if it is not the same way others do.
By Dyanne Weiss