Chopsticks & Jews: A Christmas Tradition
But that shouldn’t really be a problem, nu?
This morning, there was some (very minimal) discussion on Twitter regarding the American Jewish Christmas Tradition of going out to a movie and a Chinese restaurant. My wife — not a native-born member of the tribe — was puzzling over a minor objection I raised this morning to her plan for the day. This lead to the discussion on Twitter…
…and ultimately to this blog post.
Frankly, I don’t know where/how the “tradition” started, except that I suspect it is uniquely American. I know the Jews of Kaifeng do not seem to honor the tradition — except for the Chinese food part. I do know that in the United States, it’s even more widespread than “Mitzvah Day.” For one thing, even some of the non-Jews I know are aware of it. Last night, my wife and I watched a 20-year-old movie — A Christmas Story, starring 9-year-old Peter Billingsley — where, the (non-jewish) family goes out for Chinese dinner after the neighbors dogs devour their Christmas turkey. (The substitute is “Chinese turkey,” a.k.a. “duck.”)
If that doesn’t convince you, just google “jewish christmas chinese movie” and see what you get.
Google won’t solve the important question pondered and discussed on Twitter this morning, though. “Everyone” knows the “tradition” calls for Chinese food and a movie. But which comes first?
As it turns out, there does not seem to be any clear agreement. While I think everyone agrees you hope whoever chooses the movie didn’t lay an egg, some people don’t even know that you should eat a little duck (the “Chinese turkey” of “A Christmas Story”). And a few people totally miss the point by thinking it’s okay to get take-out — take-out! — and rent — RENT! — movies.
Oy veh! Don’t Jewish families teach their kids anything anymore?!
We, of course, are not so meshugana. Even my wife at least understands that part of the reason for the tradition is because it’s easier to find a Chinese restaurant open on Christmas Day. Before American went all pagan on us, most other establishments were closed. (Another reason is that Chinese food is “safe treyf”: the gloppy American-Cantonese food most Jews ate helps hide the fact that it’s not kosher.) Since Chinese people have historically more often been Buddhist, they’re less likely to be closed.
And the movie? Again in PP America, thanks to those who worshipped on Christmas, either in churches or just by staying home for some quality family time, theaters were fairly empty. (“PP” stands for “pre-pagan.” I would have gone with “PC” for pre-commercial, but figured everyone would think I meant “politically-correct.” And, as this post shows, I’m not at all concerned with political correctness.)
So, if you’re going to be truly “observant,” staying home is not an option. Unless it’s forced upon you, in which case you simply must find a good compromise.
Still, the question remains: Chinese food and a movie? Or a movie and Chinese food?
Apparently, the tradition varies with the locale. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for example, it’s a movie (or two) and then Chinese food (at Shun Lee West on 65th Street, which can get pretty busy for Jewish Christmas). I found some evidence that in Marin County (California) the Chinese food comes first, but I’m not positive the person discussing this was actually a Jew. And there is a conflicting report regarding a San Francisco Jew that indicates perhaps the movie — a matinee — comes first. (On the other hand, she appears to be a New York transplant, so maybe that doesn’t count.) Jerry Seinfeld, a Jew, goes with George and Elaine to a Chinese restaurant before going to a movie, but I’m not sure this has anything to do with the tradition since the episode first aired May 23, 1991.
I suspect my wife and I aren’t the only couple to be confused about the proper approach to the Jewish Christmas Tradition. All over the country, and particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, I found evidence of people combining the two, apparently in order to avoid the whole question. A synagogue in Broomall, Pennsylvania is showing Monsters, Inc. followed by Chinese food, followed by a discussion of the movie. (I suspect the announcement of the movie will be gone soon; link is to the synagogue’s main page.) A Jewish Heritage museum in Cleveland, Ohio holds Chinese Food and a Movie Day where it seems you can watch a movie and eat both Chinese and Jewish food in any order you want. You could even switch back and forth! So you could watch a short movie, eat Chinese, watch another movie, eat Jewish, watch another movie….
In the end, I don’t think it really matters that much. I just hope the tradition survives. As Karen Goldberg Goff noted,
In today’s widely assimilated America, however, home to countless ethnic restaurants likely to be open on Christmas, things are changing. (Karen Goldberg Goff, “Christmas Chopsticks for Jews” (December 24, 2008) The Washington Times.)
What?! No Chinese Turkey for Jewish Christmas?! Oy geVALT!