It’s a tradition that goes back more than a century. It’s a manifestation of the American dream. It’s about community and family and, to some extent, social justice.
Jews eat Chinese food and go to the movies on Christmas.
The reasons why that custom has flourished are intertwined with concepts of Jewish identity and the history of immigration in the United States, according to Rabbi Joshua Plaut.
Plaut is something of a triple threat. He’s the spiritual leader of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan, runs the non-profit American Friends of the Rabin Medical Center and also holds a doctorate in Jewish studies and cultural anthropology.
His book, A Kosher Christmas, was perhaps the first scholarly work examining how American Jews spend and celebrate Christmas. Not surprisingly, Chinese food and cinema attendance make up a big part of that exploration.
Christmas, Plaut said during a recent interview, presents a problem for American Jews. Other holidays — Thanksgiving, for example — are secular. But Christmas, he said, is “the only day of the year on which American Jews, secular, cultural or religious, feel like outsiders.”
The tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas dates back to the turn of the last century. The first known incidence was in 1899 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where Jewish and Chinese immigrants lived side by side. By 1935, The New York Times reported on a Chinese restaurant owner bringing takeout Chinese on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark.
In 1959, deli owner Solomon Bernstein began selling kosher Chinese food. He later opened New York City’s first-ever kosher Chinese restaurant.
Plaut said Chinese restaurants presented “a safe haven” for Jews, “in which you are separate from Christmas — no Christmas decorations, no Christmas noise.”
Over the following century, Plaut said, the practice of eating Chinese food on Christmas was solidified as part of American Jewish culture.
“Chinese food has become really a sacred Jewish ritual,” he said.
Chinese food also comes close to adhering to kosher dietary rules. Jews are forbidden from mixing meat and dairy, a rare combination in Chinese food. There is pork and shellfish for those who partake, but both are often hidden in egg rolls or wontons so you’re not obviously thumbing your nose at religious tradition. Plaut called it “safe treif.”
More religious Jews have patronized an ever-growing number of kosher Chinese restaurants spreading the tradition, Plaut said, regardless of religious adherence.
“The activity of eating Chinese food and going to the movies is as prevalent in the modern orthodox Community in the United States,” Plaut said. “It’s an American Jewish tradition. It doesn’t adhere to any religious denominal boundaries.”
Movie theaters present much the same attraction for Jewish families. First and foremost, they tend to be open on Christmas Eve.
Going to the movies is also a tradition that began in the early 1900s on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
At the time, as now, many Jews found themselves with a day off from work and nothing to do. It was common practice, Plaut said, to patronize nickelodeons, the precursors to modern-day movie theaters.
In 1908, “The high attendance levels of Jewish audiences was increasing and was noticed by the mayor of New York, George B McClellan Jr,” Plaut said.
That year, McClellan ordered all movie theaters to be closed on Christmas Eve. He claimed both that celluloid film was a fire hazard and, as Plaut put it, “that the people attending movies degraded community morals on Christmas Eve.”
New York City Jews — together with movie theater owners and distributors — responded by banding together to protest the closures. A year later, movie theaters were reopened.
Being the ‘other’
The traditions of going to the movies and eating Chinese food on Christmas are, Plaut said, examples of strategies Jews used to reinforce both their Jewish and American identities, and to make themselves comfortable in what was an unfamiliar place.
The goal, he said, was to “Make the holiday both more American and more Jewish,” and Chinese food is not the only expression of that ambition. Many Jews volunteer their time at shelters and food pantries on Christmas, for example.
Many well-known Christmas songs were written by Jewish songwriters — Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, and Run Rudolph Run by Johnny Marks, among many others — though they tended to lean on secular rather than religious Christmas imagery, Plaut said.
The modern celebration of Hanukkah, too, has become a strategy for Jews to feel part of American culture.
“Hanukkah in many ways, like it or not, has become the Jewish equivalent of Christmas,” Plaut said. And though it began as a celebration of a survival, “Hanukah has been reinterpreted as a holiday about religious freedom.”
Jews and Jewish communities are not necessarily aware they are employing these strategies. “None of it is necessarily conscious,” Plaut said. There’s no intention behind a Chinese meal. Going to the movies is not intended as an act of defiance, though there is historical precedent.
“The antecedents of this were in Europe,” he said. “Torah study was prohibited on Christmas in many communities. What Jews did was play games and cards.”
But conscious or not, according to Plaut the net effect is the same: “When you are an outsider, you want to do things that make you feel more comfortable.”