It’s a very common and commonly known tradition for American Jewish people to eat Chinese food on Christmas Day. Sometimes this is accompanied, before or after eating, by a trip to the movies.
There’s a fairly simple reason for this: Chinese restaurants tend to be open on Christmas Day, while other restaurants are closed. And because Jewish people aren’t celebrating Christmas at home with their families like Christian people are, they have to go somewhere, and Chinese restaurants are where many Jews choose to go.
The Jewish Chinese food tradition is not to be confused with Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that takes place in December; that holiday has its own culinary traditions, and it doesn’t always fall on Christmas. This year, Hanukkah took place in the early part of December.
Less certain is where exactly the Jews-eat-Chinese-food-on-Christmas tradition began. According to an examination of the question by CityLab, the New York Times mentioned the tendency as far back as 1935, and midcentury Borscht Belt comedians such as Alan King and Buddy Hackett were known to address the trope in their comedy.
The tradition is believed to go back to sometime in the first half of the 20th century when sizable numbers of both Jewish and Chinese immigrants arrived as minorities who didn’t celebrate Christmas.
“Chinese restaurants were safe. There was definitely an era for Jews when they felt insecure about being American and being perceived as foreign, especially since a good, good number of them came from Eastern Europe,” journalist and author Jennifer 8. Lee, author of the book Fortune Cookie Chronicles, told CityLab. The site also said that web searches for Chinese food tend to spike around Christmastime and are at heavier volume in parts of the country with large Jewish populations.
A sign, purportedly from the “Chinese Restaurant Associaton of the United States” thanking Jews for patronizing their restaurants on Christmas, has appeared frequently on social media around Christmas for the last several years. The association, the sign says, “would like to extend our thanks to The Jewish People. We do not completely understand your dietary customs… But we are proud and grateful that your GOD insist you eat our food.”
According to Snopes, the sign appears to derive from a cartoon drawn by the famed playwright David Mamet, which was published in Tablet magazine in 2010. There is no such organization as the “Chinese Restaurant Associaton of the United States,” although it’s possible that some real Chinese restaurant posted the sign.