Much to my horror, I discovered earlier today that my favorite local Chinese restaurant isn’t open on Christmas Eve.
This may not seem like a big deal – heck, you could even say that I’m a bit of a scrooge for faulting the establishment – but it’s important to remember that, as an American Jew, being denied Chinese food on this holiday is a bit like a Christian hearing their family church has decided to close. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Tribe of Abraham has been enjoying Chinese food on this day for as long as human memory can record.
If you want to learn the real story, though, this piece from The Atlantic manages to explain things pretty nicely:
“The story begins during the halcyon days of the Lower East Side where, as Jennifer 8. Lee, the producer of The Search for General Tso, said, ‘Jews and Chinese were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups’ at the turn of the century.
So while it’s true that Chinese restaurants were notably open on Sundays and during holidays when other restaurants would be closed, the two groups were linked not only by proximity, but by otherness. Jewish affinity for Chinese food ‘reveals a lot about immigration history and what it’s like to be outsiders,’ she explained.”
Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper story about Jewish culture if there wasn’t at least one Jew out there who disagreed with it. This brings me to another theory, courtesy of Josh Ozersky from Time Magazine:
“The thing to remember about Chinese food is that, besides being cheap, it is eminently suited to take out; at least three-quarters of the Chinese food I ate growing up was at home. And Jews love eating at home. We are intensely familial, home-loving and nuclear; and given that our own food is both bad and laborious (endlessly braised brisket, spattering latkes), Chinese food — varied, fatty and festive — is a better alternative in part because it’s always at hand. It’s a cheap lift; you can think of it as Jewish Prozac. And, beyond this, there is an even greater power of Chinese food in our lives, a sentimental tradition in a secular world.“
Personally, I think both versions here are correct. Although Jewish and Chinese immigrants to America hail from very different geographic and cultural backgrounds, they both find themselves regarded as “outsiders” during one of the most important holidays celebrated in this country. While this isn’t solely responsible for the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas, it most likely accounts for its genesis; from there, the convenience, deliciousness, and family-friendly qualities of this particular fast food cuisine makes up for the rest.
Having mentioned all of this, I would like to add a third theory – namely, that Jews began eating Chinese food on Christmas because they realized just how funny this would appear to be. After all, comedy is just as much a Jewish tradition as gefilte fish, and Jews love nothing more than setting up a good-natured joke about cultural pluralism. This is why, in my mind, the most important event in the history of Jewish Christmas occurred less than five years ago. It occurred when President Barack Obama appointed Elena Kagan, a Jewish judge, to the Supreme Court:
“When [Senator Lindsey] Graham questioned her about the Christmas Day bomber, Kagan started to answer seriously until he cut her off, asking her instead what she was doing on Christmas Day.
‘Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,’ Kagan said, prompting the hearing room to erupt in laughter.”
If I could turn the Graham-Kagan exchange into a ringtone, I would do so in a heartbeat. That uproarious laughter at the end was, in its way, the perfect coda to a moment that captures so much about the American Jewish experience. Even though we don’t share the same religious traditions as most of our countrymen, we are overjoyed at the privilege of living in a nation as wonderfully diverse and accepting as this one. The mere thought of it warms my heart and fills my soul with joy… and if that isn’t the Christmas Spirit, I don’t know what is.