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Chinese food | © Giorgio Minguzzi/Flickr
Chinese food | © Giorgio Minguzzi/Flickr
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Why Jewish-Americans Eat Chinese Food On Christmas Day

Picture of Alexia Wulff
Updated: 29 November 2016
For many, Christmas Day is a celebration of religious beliefs; for some, it’s a cultural holiday for giving gifts and imbibing on spiked egg nog. For Jewish-Americans, December 25th is just a regular day, but over the past century, they have developed a Christmas tradition of their own: plates upon plates of egg rolls, orange chicken, and dumplings.

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.

Mulberry Street, on the Lower East Side, circa 1900
Mulberry Street, on the Lower East Side, circa 1900 | Public Domain/WikiCommons

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 prohibitedaside 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.

Chinese Feast
Chinese Feast | Public Domain/Pixabay