'Tis the Season: Why Do Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas?

It's not just because no other restaurants are open; the custom dates back to the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, the Atlantic reports.

Chinese food
Neon sign outside a Chinese restaurant © Julie Feinstein | Dreamstime.com

Everyone knows that American Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas, but not everyone knows when, how or why that tradition started.

Some believe it's simply because no other restaurants are open on December 25, but "the circumstances that birthed Jewish Christmas are also deeply historical, sociological, and religious," according to an article in the Atlantic.

The tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas dates back to when Jewish and Chinese immigrants comprised the largest groups of non-Christians on New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the century, the Atlantic reports. The two groups were united by geography, having lived side by side, and also by what the magazine calls their "otherness."

Jewish hankering for Chinese food “reveals a lot about immigration history and what it’s like to be outsiders,” Jennifer 8. Lee, the producer of "The Search for General Tso," told the magazine.

For Jews, Chinese food also served as a gateway into American life and into eating cuisine beyond the typical smoked fish and rye bread.

Chinese food allowed Jews to eat ethnic cuisine without the fear of mixing milk – which the Chinese generally avoid – and meat. Never mind that there is plenty of pork and shellfish.

"If you look at the two other main ethnic cuisines in America, which are Italian and Mexican, both of those combine milk and meat to a significant extent," Lee said. "Chinese food allowed Jews to eat foreign cuisines in a safe way."

Lee goes even further to argue that “Chinese food is the ethnic cuisine of American Jews."

She asserts, "they identify with it more than they do gefilte fish or all kinds of the Eastern Europe dishes of yore.”

That may be a stretch, but there's no doubt that the custom of chowing down on Chinese food over Christmas is something Jews identify with – and that the Chinese benefit from as well.

“Clearly this whole thing with Chinese food and Jewish people has evolved,” Ed Schoenfeld, the owner of Red Farm Chinese restaurant in New York, told the Atlantic. “There’s no question. Christmas was always a good day for Chinese restaurants, but in recent years, it’s become the ultimate day of business.”