Chinese Food At Christmas Isn't Just A Thing -- It's The Best Thing

by Sara Farrell Baker
couple eating Chinese food — Chinese food on Christmas
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It started when my parents got divorced and my sisters and I would alternate who we spent the holidays with every year. If it was my mom’s turn for Christmas, we went to evening mass on Christmas Eve with our grandparents before coming home in our red and black dresses. We would all snack on appetizers and cookies my grandmother made while listening to Christmas music and open our stockings, then change into matching pajamas and go to bed. But if it was my dad’s turn, there was no church and there were no poofy dresses. He wasn’t much for cooking, so we would order Chinese food on Christmas. Then we would eat it in front of the television while we watched whatever Christmas movies were airing. We absolutely loved it.

Now that we are all older, our Christmas traditions have changed. I have a family of my own and, since Christmas Day is spent mostly out of our home visiting our extended families, I like to keep Christmas Eve just the four of us — my husband, our two children, and me. Our family is still young, so we are still in the early stages of forming traditions.

My husband and I have both added beloved traditions from our own childhoods into the Christmas Eves that we spend with our own children now. We let the kids open their stockings. We listen to Christmas music. We watch the movies airing on television.

And we order Chinese food. Always.

Is Chinese food on Christmas a thing?

Chinese food at Christmas isn’t just a tradition; it’s an institution. You’ve probably seen movies depicting Jewish American families (and especially Jewish New Yorkers) eating at Chinese restaurants on Christmas. Or maybe it was that funny holiday scene in A Christmas Story — when Ralphie’s family eats Peking duck at Bo Ling Chop Suey Palace after the dog eats their turkey dinner — that cemented the idea of Chinese food on Christmas for you. But eating Chinese cuisine during the holidays actually has deep historical, sociological, and religious roots.

At the turn of the century, Jews and Chinese were the two most prominent non-Christian groups of immigrants in New York, where the tradition is believed to have started. So, there were many Chinese restaurants in close proximity to the Jewish community. References as far back as 1899 point toward American Jews eating lunch at Chinese restaurants on Sundays when Christians would flock to other nearby restaurants after church. And so, Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas became a tradition not only because restaurants weren’t open but also because it provided a sense of community and a secular way to celebrate during the holidays.

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Where do you find Chinese food open on Christmas?

Fortunately, you should have no shortage of options if you’re thinking about creating a Christmas spread consisting entirely of Chinese cuisine. Many Chinese food restaurants are open during the holidays (including Dec. 25), and you can find them with a quick Google Maps search of your city.

Why eat Chinese food on Christmas?

For American Jews, part of the appeal is that while all Chinese cuisine isn’t kosher, it’s safer than some other immigrant cuisines. Jewish law prohibits the mixing of milk and meat, which, for example, Italian cuisine and Mexican cuisine both do. Chinese food, on the other hand, is virtually dairy-free.

But the Jewish tradition of Chinese food and a movie Christmas Day isn’t the only reason Christmas is the busiest day for Chinese restaurants around the country. It has been adopted by loads of other people who are just too lazy to cook (like me) or would rather spend their time celebrating than sweating in the kitchen (also me). There is nothing like a pile of General Tso’s chicken, still holding the cubic form of its to-go container, to make it feel like Christmas.

A year and a half ago, we moved to a new house in our town. We are in a new school district, closer to a different library, and out of the delivery range for my favorite Chinese restaurant. It has been a year and a half of trying various Chinese food places, my emotions ranging from disappointment (“They forgot the duck sauce.”) to flat-out rage (“You call this lo mein?!”), and I have been sadly making new plans for Christmas Eve that involve me (ugh) cooking.

That is, I had been making new plans. New, sh*tty plans that I was not excited about at all. I had been making them until I noticed a little Chinese food joint tucked in the corner of a strip mall that I had never seen before. It wasn’t new, but it was new to me. I ordered myself some take-out one night so I could test run my final hope, and dear sweet baby Jesus, they came through.


’Twas the night before Christmas

And all through the house Not a creature was stirring…

Except for me on my way to the fridge for some leftover egg rolls to nosh on while I finish wrapping those goddamn gifts because I procrastinated. Again.