Jack Chen doesn’t remember the last time he didn’t work on Dec. 25. As owner of Sakura Mandarin in Chinatown, he knows his restaurant will be hopping, and he doesn’t feel it’s fair to make his employees work without him.
“Some of my staff do take the day off,” Chen explained, “but our customers really appreciate us being here — I’m part of their tradition.”
The American Jewish custom of eating Chinese on Christmas has been around for decades. It likely has its roots in the early 1900s, when both Chinese and Jewish immigrants flooded East Coast cities like New York.
Close to kosher
While not exactly kosher, Chinese food was closer than many other cuisines — at least, it didn’t combine meat and dairy at every turn. Plus, when trayf pork and shellfish did appear, they were mostly hidden between rice and vegetables. It became the default choice when Jews in America wanted to dine out.
It was probably more recently that the practice became associated specifically with Christmas. Thanks to mass media and the explosion of retail marketing, the holiday morphed into a societal juggernaut, and anyone not doing something special was guaranteed to feel left out. So instead of gathering ‘round a tree, Jewish families created their own ritual.
The custom has been discussed at the nation’s highest levels. During her 2010 confirmation hearings, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan caused a brief moment of levity when she answered a question about where she had spent Christmas. “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,” she cracked, with a smile.
The practice is now so much a part of American culture that Jewish people don’t even question why they do it — “Because tradition!” many say — and it has also inspired several spinoff events.
Ocean Harbor hosts the annual Moo Shu Jew Show, a nationally-renowned dinner theater comedy that just marked its seventh year. Michael Solomonov’s Zahav codifies the ritual in its annual Dec 23. party, entitled “A Very Jewish Christmas,” during which the Israeli restaurant serves Chinese food and shows a movie on a big screen.
For most Chinese restaurateurs, the thought of staying closed never crosses their minds.
“How could we close? We are so busy,” said a manager at Tai Lake, a Cantonese seafood house in Philadelphia Chinatown.
“Maybe if you work in an office, you get a vacation, but if you’re in the restaurant business, you have to do it,” offered a manager at Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House, “Someone has to make the food for people who have the day off.”
She estimated that on Christmas Day, Nan Zhou’s dining room is more bustling than on a busy Saturday. Because patrons come in throughout the day, business can be almost double that of a standard weeknight.
The idea that “Jewish Christmas” is a welcome windfall for Chinese restaurant owners even became its own meme in 2011. That year, celeb chef Tom Colicchio posted to Twitter a photo of a sign from the “Chinese Restaurant Association of the United States” offering thanks that the Jewish God “insists you eat our food on Christmas.”
“A bizarre but probably well-intentioned gesture,” wrote Grubstreet when it published the pic. The image was reposted around the internet, gaining legs from stories on pop culture sites like Boing Boing. Only thing? The sign was a joke, based exactly on a cartoon drawn by David Mamet for Tablet Magazine a year earlier.
That said, the sentiment holds. “I’ve never met a Chinese restaurant owner that didn’t love a room full of white people eating MSG!” quipped a Chinatown businessman when asked about the phenomenon.
Jokes aside, for Jack Chen of Sakura, staying open isn’t about raking in the dough. It’s about forming relationships.
“The customers come back year after year,” he said. “They know me now, and I know them. We spend Christmas together.”