The Chinese Restaurant Association of the United States would like to extend our thanks to the Jewish people,” reads a sign in a photo of unknown origin that makes the rounds on the Internet each year. It lovingly mocks “Jewish Christmas,” or the tradition of going out for Chinese food and a movie on December 24 or 25. But in the last few years, this tradition has been less mocked and more copied as non-Jews around the country have adopted it.
If it seems as if the lines have gotten longer for dim sum on Christmas, it’s not your imagination. A Google Trends graph tracking searches for Chinese food migrated from a smooth slope (pre-2008) to a peak in February each year (Chinese New Year) until about 2011. But in the last few years, it has reached a double peak, with the most searches coming in December. Searches on Christmas are nearly double the next most popular days.
“I take some offense, honestly,” Hanna Raskin says about the influx of gentiles to the tradition. Raskin, the former food critic at Seattle Weekly, wrote her master’s thesis on the relationship between Jews and Chinese food. She notes that Jews found solace in a place where there was no reference to Christmas, to what they were missing out on. She points out that for years, Woody Allen films came out during the holidays, promising a Yuletide-free moviegoing experience. Raskin rejects the claim that Chinese restaurants are the only ones open, pointing out, “We could go fishing and then to the hotel buffet.”
Instead, Chinese restaurants and movies represent what she calls “the two greatest poles of achievement for American Judaism: New York and Hollywood.” Local radio host Rachel Belle Krampfner shares Raskin’s irritation, joking that the crowds at the restaurant mess up her getting to the movie on time.
The gentiles pouring into the restaurants, however, see things differently. Brook Hurst Stephens found that for her large, blended family, it was easier to convince 20-something stepdaughters to come to neutral territory (a restaurant) than to her own house. Nonpracticing Catholic Sheri Doyle — whose group has recently switched Chinese restaurants because of the lines — says, “Since I’m not particularly religious, and don’t have family in the area, it’s nice to have a tradition with friends.”
Raskin, like Krampfner, sees the absurdity in complaining, admitting that there are plenty of Chinese restaurants and movies to go around. Raskin actually hopes that the crowds coming in understand the underlying identity experience for Jews — and are not just copying the idea because they enjoy food and movies. “There’s real cultural significance to what we do. This is the day we celebrate our identity as American Jews,” she says. “It’s the one thing that is ours.”