Jack Chen doesn’t remember the last time he didn’t work on Dec. 25. As owner of Bai Wei 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 told Billy Penn, “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.
It’s so popular in Philadelphia that in Chinatown, Christmas is one of the busiest days of the year.
Not quite kosher, but close
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.
The practice is now so much a part of American culture that Jewish people don’t even question why they do it — “Because tradition!” is common refrain.
‘We spend Christmas together’
For many Chinese restaurateurs in Philadelphia, the idea of closing for Christmas Day is silly.
“How could we close? We are so busy,” said a manager at Tai Lake, a Cantonese seafood house.
“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 windfall for Chinatowns across the U.S. has been a meme since at least 2010, when David Mamet drew up a joke poster for Tablet Magazine. The following year, celeb chef Tom Colicchio posted a photo he’d snapped of the same message appearing IRL in a restaurant window.
Jokes aside, staying open isn’t just about raking in the dough. For Chen, of Bai Wei, 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.”