Not surprisingly, my Jewish family doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Nor ornamented pine trees, nor any other merry symbols of Christianity (though I do have a weakness for red and green M&Ms). So when December 25th rolls around, we follow a Christmas tradition that has nothing to do with nativity scenes or midnight mass: dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant, followed by a movie.
Chinese restaurants on Christmas day resemble synagogues on Yom Kippur—they’re packed to capacity with the Jewish community. Only instead of books in hand, we have chopsticks, and instead of praying, we’re eating. We treat the Tiger Bowl like a communal dining room, chatting and joking with the other Jewish families over platters brimming with vegetable dumplings, crispy sea bass, moo shoo vegetables, and string beans with garlic sauce. Even though the same scenario plays out year after year, the main topic of conversation inevitably revolves around our genuine shock at seeing everyone there—as if it’s never, ever happened before. I’m pretty sure we can stop calling it a coincidence at this point.
And each year we all act like it’s an extension of the Hanukah miracle when, having parted ways following dinner, everyone runs into one another again hours later at the same theater at the same time to see the same movie, popcorn and candy in hand. Although in retrospect, we really shouldn’t have been that surprised when the 9 p.m. screening of Life is Beautiful sold out back in 1998 because so many of us showed up.
Are there any mysteries or deep-seated ties to this tradition? None at all. We’re not being lazy or shirking our cooking responsibilities. We’ve already had our celebration—eight magnificent, indulgent days of it. The fact is that when Christmas rolls around, Chinese restaurants and movie theaters are just about the only places that remain open. We Jews want to do something special, too. And you know us. So much the better if we can eat when we get there.—Jenna Levy
Here are just a few recipes Jenna’s family enjoys. If you spend Christmas day at a Chinese restaurant, what are some of your favorite yuletide dishes?–LC Editors