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Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas? How the tradition has evolved over 100 years

Renee Eder on Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Hebrew year is 5777 and the Chinese year is 4714. That must mean, as the joke goes, that against all odds the Jews went without Chinese food for 1,063 years. This must not have been easy, because Jewish people (including myself) love Chinese food, especially on Christmas. In fact, it is a tradition that dates back more than 100 years!

Over the years, Jewish families and friends have gathered on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Chinese restaurants across the United States to socialize, to reinforce social and familiar bonds, and to engage in a favorite activity for Jews during the Christmas holiday. According to Joshua Eli Plaut, author of A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish, "The origin of this Jewish tradition of eating out at Chinese restaurants dates to the end of the 19th century on the Lower East Side. Jews found such restaurants readily available in urban and suburban areas in America where both Jews and Chinese lived in close proximity."

This is the timeline of events for the Chinese food on Christmas tradition:

• 1899: The first mention of Chinese food on Christmas was in the American Hebrew weekly journal

• 1903: The Yiddish-language newspaper the Forward coined the Yiddish word oysessen — eating out — to describe the growing custom of Jews eating outside the home in New York City.

• 1910: Approximately one million Jews had settled in New York City, constituting more than one quarter of the city’s population. Soon, immigrants were exposed to non-Jewish ethnic foods and tastes. In the neighborhoods in which Jews first settled, Chinese restaurants were plentiful.

• 1936: The Lower East Side publication, East Side Chamber News, reported that at least 18 Chinese “tea gardens” and chop suey eateries had recently opened in the heavily populated Jewish area. All were within a short walking distance of Ratner’s, the famous Jewish dairy restaurant in Manhattan.

• By the end of the 20th century, after only 100 years: Immigrant Jews all over the U.S. were more familiar with sushi than with gefilte fish, and Christmas for Jewish people became synonymous with eating Chinese food!

Michael Tong of Shun Lee Palace in New York talked about Chinese Food in a 2003 interview with The New York Times. He explained it well, saying, "While most restaurants close for the holiday, or in a few cases, stay open and serve a prix fixe meal laden with froufrou, thousands of diners, most of them Jewish, are faced with a dilemma. There's nothing to celebrate at home and no place to eat out, at least if they want a regular dinner. That leaves Chinese restaurants..."

Does your family eat Chinese food on Christmas? If so, you can come enjoy it at the J this year! Join your friends, family, and community for JFest, an afternoon screening of Pixar’s classic movie “UP” and kosher Chinese food. Register early for this very popular event! The cost is $12/adult and $6/child for Chinese food and the movie, and $3 for movie only. Please RSVP by December 22, if you are having Chinese food. Learn more here. Hope to see you there!

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