In the US, Jews have been eating American Chinese food on Christmas for over 100 years.
For over a century, American Jews have eaten American Chinese food on Christmas. This pastime has evolved to a near-holy tradition, parodied on Saturday Night Live, analyzed in academic papers, and reaffirmed by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
Perhaps the foremost expert on the practice is Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD, executive director of American Friends of Rabin Medical Center, rabbi of Metropolitan Synagogue in New York, and author of A Kosher Christmas, the premier (and only?) comprehensive study of what Jews do at Christmastime.
I spoke to Plaut about Chinese food on Christmas, and why he used to sit on Santa Claus’s lap.
Both Jews and Christmas have existed for a while. When did Jews first ask, “What should we do on Christmas?”
It has been a question for as long as Christmas has existed, because Jews have always felt like outsiders. But how they felt specifically was really a function of their status in society. In Eastern Europe, for instance, Jews were not very assimilated. Christmas was a night of possible pogroms and violence, with so many celebrants, often drunk, going from house to house. Jews did not go to the synagogue to study. They stayed at home for physical safety reasons. If they did anything, they might play cards or chess.
In Western Europe, after the French Revolution, Jews were more assimilated. There, they had more freedom to wonder, “Do I bring a Christmas tree into my home? Do I have a holiday meal? Do I give out gifts?” The early Zionist Theodor Herzl was a secular Jew, and he had a Christmas tree in his salon. After the Chief Rabbi of Vienna came to visit, he wrote something in his diary like, ”I hope the Rabbi doesn’t think less of me because of this. Then again, what do I care what he thinks?”