But how did Jewish Christmas become an annual custom? The story begins in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At the turn of the century, the predominant groups in the area were Italians, Eastern European Jews, and Chinese. By 1910, the Jewish population of New York City reached about one million, roughly a quarter of the city’s population. Jews, along with the Chinese, were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups, but Jewish-Americans, like Chinese-Americans, were often ostracized because their religious beliefs did not coincide with the rest of the neighborhood’s customs.
As outsiders, similarities between the Jewish and Chinese cultures became apparent. And as Jews began to assimilate into American culture, they found acceptance at Chinese restaurants. Cantonese-style foods were similar to the Kosher diet – mixing milk and meat are prohibited – aside from the occasional trayf of pork and shellfish, which made straying away from traditional Jewish cuisine easier. But most importantly, the Chinese didn’t celebrate Christmas. It’s true – Chinese restaurants are known for being open on Sundays and holidays, but this was especially important for Jewish-Americans on Christmas Day when nearly every business was closed. And so, the two groups became linked beyond just convenience; historical, sociological, and religious reasons played a key role in developing what would become widely known as Jewish Christmas.
This culinary phenomenon has grown immensely over the years. It’s now an annual tradition that not only boasts Jewish affinity for Chinese cuisine but also as a manifestation of Jewish life in America. It represents how immigration helps to develop new traditions, customs, and rituals, tailored to a more modern society. What is certain, though, is that Jewish Christmas is distinctly American but uniquely Jewish.