I recently received an e-mail from a reporter asking whether I was free to discuss "the tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve." (I wrote an academic article on the relationship between Jews and Chinese food, so fielding these queries is my own annual holiday tradition.)
Christmas Eve? I've been marking the Christian holiday with lo mein my entire life, and it never occurred to me that the festive meal could be scheduled for Dec. 24. Eating Chinese is what Jews do on Christmas Day, ideally after catching the latest Woody Allen movie.
Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, what's the difference? While there's a Jewish tendency to pick quibbles, I think this debate is worth pursuing. When Jews started patronizing Chinese restaurants on Christmas, they weren't especially interested in forging a tradition that could be handed down from generation to generation. They were hungry, and so went to the only open restaurants they could find.
Lately, though, circumstances have changed. As more Chinese have taken to celebrating Christmas, an increasing number of Chinese restaurants have begun closing for the holiday. But non-Chinese restaurants have picked up the slack, no doubt hoping to wring profit from Christians eager to avoid cooking on a rare day off. Grilled salmon and baked ziti are now as readily available as moo shu chicken on Christmas. The precise why's of eating Chinese food on Christmas - like so many other Jewish practices - are rapidly becoming obsolete.
But just because the routine is no longer driven by necessity doesn't mean it should be discarded. To the contrary, eating Chinese food on Christmas is more important now than ever.
The Jewish calendar is crammed with holidays marking agricultural milestones and ancient battles, but - with the possible exception of the overblown Bar Mitzvah - there are very few communal observances that speak directly to the Jewish-American experience. That's hardly surprising: Judaism hasn't lasted 4000 years by adjusting to every rejiggering of the political map. Yet I really like the idea of a ritual that acknowledges the unique history of American Jews, and celebrates the culture they've created. Chinese food on Christmas is the ultimate Jewish-American holiday, and the tradition ought to be maintained no matter how many hotels keep their kitchens open on Christmas.
Jews didn't arrive in the U.S. with a fondness for Chinese food. But at the turn of the 20th century, 75 percent of New York's Jews lived in the Lower East Side, a dense, gritty neighborhood that abutted Chinatown. Chinatown offered Jewish immigrants a chance to eat out without knowingly violating their dietary codes - milk and meat rarely mix on Chinese plates, and pork is almost never served in a recognizably offensive form, such as a bacon strip - or risking the consequences of antisemitism. Just as dopey Anglo-Americans griped they couldn't tell the difference between Asians, Chinese restaurateurs didn't bother distinguishing Jews from Protestants: They all looked European to them.
Eating Chinese wasn't a uniquely Jewish pastime. New Yorkers of all ethnic backgrounds were crazy for chop suey. But Chinese food became associated with American Jewry through a demographic quirk. Unlike, say, Italian immigrants, who established significant populations in Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco, the vast majority of Jewish immigrants settled in New York. As a result, New York culture became synonymous with Jewish-American culture.
The New York habit of going out for Chinese food was enthusiastically upheld by Jews, partly because it signified the cosmopolitanism, adaptability and open-mindedness on which their culture prided itself. Many Jewish families began making weekly Sunday visits to Chinese restaurants. And they ate Chinese food on Christmas, when the rest of the country was busy opening gifts and singing carols around Christmas trees. While American rabbis had dredged up Hanukkah to distract American Jews from Santa and stockings, lighting a candelabra - sometimes a week after Thanksgiving, depending on the moon - doesn't do much to stem the left-out feelings that surface every December. Eating Chinese food in the company of other Jews succinctly says, "hey, we're doing something here too."
That's a ritual worth not just preserving, but codifying, which means we need to get this Christmas Eve/Christmas Day business sorted out. I'm voting for Christmas Day.