Christmas is unavoidable. Walk into a retail establishment, a coffee shop, or down a city street in the month of December, and you’ll be assaulted by the sights and sounds of secular Christmas. As observers have noted in both pleasure and pain, every year it seems to start earlier, too; there’s a reason for that. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that Christmas is a religious holiday at all—it feels more like a collective cultural exhale, a chance for people to unwind at the end of a long year, eat heartily, and enjoy (or avoid) time with their families.
But Christmas is a religious holiday: It’s the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the savior and Messiah at the head of Christianity’s many arms. Even if you aren’t a Christian, you probably know this, regardless of whether you understand Easter or the Catholic Mass. Thanks to its national assimilation, Christmas has become a part of the American lexicon.
That being said, the 21.6 percent of Americans who don’t identify as Christian do not celebrate Christmas, for the most part. And among those outstanding groups, Jews have probably become best known for how they don’t celebrate Christmas. We call it the Jewish Christmas: eating Chinese food, going to the movies, and otherwise skipping the whole Santa thing.
"The Chinese restaurant has become a place where Jewish identity is made, remade, and announced."
Growing up in Long Island in the 1960s and ’70s, my mom and her family ate Chinese food with their neighbors, and the tradition goes back even further than that. Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, author of A Kosher Christmas: Tis the Season to Be Jewish, writes that the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food, in general, dates back all the way to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries in New York, where Jews and Chinese people lived in tandem on the Lower East Side. Jews would regularly eat at Chinese restaurants, a place where they were free from anti-Semitism; the bond was so significant, Plaut writes, that many Chinese thought the Jews’ Yiddish-inflected English was the norm.
More specifically, the yuletide ritual “dates at least as early as 1935 when The New York Times reported [on] a certain restaurant owner named Eng Shee Chuck who brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark,” Plaut writes. “Over the years ... the Chinese restaurant has become a place where Jewish identity is made, remade and announced.”
The process of Chinese food on Christmas becoming a serious part of the Jewish identity was brought to a head during Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings for the United States Supreme Court in 2010. When asked about where she was on Christmas Day during the attempted Christmas Day bombing, Kagan responded: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.” Professor David Biale, director of the Davis Humanities Institute at the University of California-Davis, says that he thinks of Kagan’s joke as a major milestone in the cultural awareness of the tradition, and that the idea of almost counter-programming against, or alongside, the Christmas holiday has been happening for centuries.
“There is a very old Jewish tradition from Eastern Europe that on Christmas Eve people would play card games,” Biale says. “They would turn it into almost a carnival, in imitation of how Christmas used to be a winter-solstice carnival holiday. The Jews picked this up and did it as a refutation of Jesus as this malevolent force who could be countered by playing cards.”
Back then, Biale says Jewish teachers and leadership wouldn’t study (as you might expect them to) because they believed the evil spirit of Jesus could infect their readings. Among the Hasidim, this idea still holds some weight. According to an article from 2004 in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Hasidim would play chess or do their bills and suspend Torah study on Nittel Nacht, as Christmas Eve was called.
Rabbi Bruce Phillips, a professor of Sociology & Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College, says that this question of Jewish identity—obviously much different in the contemporary United States than Industrial Age Eastern Europe—plays a major role in behavior on Christmas. Part of it has been reflected in the elevation of Hanukkah among American Jews.
“Jews began to celebrate Hanukkah in the 1800s as a way to preserve Jewish identity,” Phillips says. “It’s kind of a Jewish national holiday. It was less about Christmas originally, because actually Christmas wasn’t celebrated that much in America—that’s more recent. Hanukkah goes back in America to trying to create and strengthen Jewish Identity in the 1800s, and it received a boost in the 1950s with the state of Israel.”
As Christmas became more prevalent, American Jews took advantage of the opportunities presented by most of the country being off from work. Phillips remembers his family working at his father’s store in East Los Angeles and says that when he was growing up, other Jews would go to Disneyland on Christmas Day, because nobody else would be there. (That’s no longer the case.) His family would also go to look at the Christmas lights around the city—a way of participating in the national mood from a purely observational standpoint.
“More recently, there’s been an observance of Christmas by doing communal involvement on Christmas day—volunteering for things where non-Jews aren’t going to be there, like food kitchens and food pantries,” Phillips says. “I think in part, originally, Chinese food and movies were the only things that were open, but recently it’s been a re-assertion of identity for young Jews.”
What all this goes to say is that, as a tradition, Chinese food and the movies aren’t important so much for what they represent as activities (though chow mein does give an interesting glimpse into the history of Jews as one of many immigrant cultures). Instead, the traditions are more important for the fact that they exist at all—they signify the effort of a culture to take advantage of, rather than retreat from, what could be an alienating national mood.