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(Liya Rechtman)– Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve. It’s a thing. Jews have had Chinese food on Christmas Eve since we first started arriving in this country en masse. While the majority of you are sitting around a fire and eating giant roast hams and chestnuts and putting strings of popcorn on pine trees in the middle of your living rooms (or whatever it is that you do on Christmas Eve), my family will be sitting down for some lo mein, chicken fried rice, and steamed dumplings at our favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant. This is one of those traditions that are distinct to American Jews. Like any religious subgroup celebrating a well-known folk tradition, there are many myths, theories, and feelings surrounding the phenomena.
The easiest justification for this is the “nothing else is open” observation. As you may or may not know, depending on how you have spent Christmases past and were you’re from, this is no longer the case in 2012. Plenty of other businesses, especially big chains, stay open on Christmas and New Years and generally don’t close ever. So in reality it would be just as feasible for my family to grab Thai or sushi or even maybe something Western on Christmas Eve.
The “nothing else is open” complaint actually has its roots in the Jewish New York between 1880 and World War I. Jews were pouring into Ellis Island in hordes, in search of a better life away from the (pre-Holocaust) persecution of the Russian pogroms, and ghettoization and discrimination throughout most Europe. Chinese and Italians were coming to America via New York right around the same time. Jews and Chinese therefore forged an alliance as two non-Christian immigrants groups that arrived, lost and confused in a Christian country and a crowded city right around the same time. Nothing else was open on Christmas because there were no other large non-Christian groups in the country at the time.
There are some major differences between Jewish and Chinese culture, even more so in the early 1900s than today. You may wonder, considering your understanding of Jews for a second, how, historically, Jews could have chosen to patronize Chinese restaurants. Herein lies the second, tongue-in-cheek response to the question: “Chinese food is kinda sorta kosher.” This is just not true. The laws of keeping kosher (kashrut) forbid Jews to eat any pork, shellfish, meat mixed with dairy, or anything that has so much as touched or been in the same kitchen as those things. If you have ever, ever so much as walked into a Chinese restaurant you will know that it doesn’t fulfill these criteria.
American Jews have circumnavigated kashrut on Chinese food in several ways:
1) There generally is no dairy in Chinese food. Like Jews, the Chinese also have a problem with lactose and generally avoid it in most of their food. Therefore Chinese restaurants are classified by Jews as ‘meat-only’ restaurants and eating there becomes a significantly less risky endeavor. At a Chinese resturant, Jewish customer no longer has to inquire if each item has been made with butter or canola oil when they are trying to chow down on chicken.
2) The Chinese-American dish chop-suey, and other similar stew-like messes made of various ground-up meats, spices and vegetables is very similar to the Eastern European Jewish cholent. Chinese food therefore was simultaneously exotic (Asain) and similar to what Jews ate at home.
3) Dishes like chop-suey and other minced, fried, mixed meats made it very hard for Jews to definitively tell that something wasn’t kosher. Moreover, the Chinese restaurants rarely had menus in English or waiters who fully spoke English, thus Jewish customers had very little ability to gain knowledge about what they were eating. The what-we-don’t-know-wont’t-break-kashrut ideology prevailed.
NB: It’s unclear whether Chinese people are aware of the underlying reason for this tradition, so I’m not sure calling it “cross-cultural” is necessarily accurate. However they certainly recognize that it exists:
Both these explanations for the Jewish Christmas Eve tradition are founded in the history of our immigration and a strange cross-cultural symbiosis founded on deep fried meat. However there is a third and final justification, which remains salient to me today, as a 21st century Jewish American and keeps me dumpling-found on December 24th: it’s really lonely and weird to have the whole country celebrate a holiday that we have no part in and no desire to participate in. Christmas is the only time of a year when the whole family gets off from school and has four or five days to be together. Our religious winter solstice holiday, Hanukah (which at this point often looks like a Jewish Christmas-analogue), is not on the Grecian calendar that the modern world follows and instead lands at random time in the year that our unaccounted for in our academic year. When was the last time Hanukah didn’t fall on or near finals?
Christmas is the time of year where my status as a religious minority in this country is most profound. Jews make up roughly 1.2% of the population of the United States, but I grew up at a school with roughly 40% Jews, most of whom attended my synagogue. Compared to this, the measly 5-10% percent of Jewish students at Amherst was intimidatingly small and one of many reasons why I felt so isolated during my first year of college. However, the Amherst College Israel Alliance and Hillel are both thriving groups now, boasting double or triple membership from what they were my freshman year. Yet the minute I left campus for my New York-Hartford-Miami-Orlando adventure, I found the world awash in red and green, and ringing with festive holiday carols.
When I was little and someone would wish me a “merry Christmas!” I would turn around, look at the unfortunate recipient of my speech right in the eyes and launch into a tirade: “You know, not everyone in this beautifully diverse country is Christian. The United States of America was founded on pluralism and in our Constitution it calls for a separation of Church and State… no religion in the public sphere…” I wish I could still give that speech, but at the age of 20 I realize that it would mark me as angry and maybe with a behavioral development problem. When I was 15 I tried to organize a protest on the steps of the US Supreme Court because I saw a giant Christmas tree in the lobby. While the argument about whether or not the tree is legal is a conversation for another post, my point here is about how it feels to be a non-Christian American on America’s Big Christian Holiday Day – namely, Christmas Eve.
It’s so refreshing, in light of this Jewish American frustration, to have a place to be on Christmas Eve. What’s more, not many non-Jews know about our little counter-cultural tradition. Chinese food on Christmas Eve takes on a quality of idiosyncrasy and in-tribe (Jewish) irony that outsiders don’t know about and wouldn’t understand. It gives us an “us” on a day that’s all about “them.”