We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas!

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The tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve is so pervasive that it has been the catalyst for many a Yuletide parody. Erev Christmas was written by veteran storyteller Bruce Marcus and Lori Factor (now Factor-Marcus) and originally published by The Boston Globe newspaper in 1993. (The version that appears below was slightly revised in September of 2011). These two Boston-area Jews chronicled their personal Christmas Eve quest for Chinese food with some measure of comic license, adding to the large canon of verse satirizing the well-known poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clemente Clarke Moore.

Erev Christmas [Christmas Eve]

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and we, being Jews,

my girlfriend and me -A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season To Be Jewish we had nothing to do.

The Gentiles were home, hanging stockings with care,

secure in their knowledge St. Nick would be there.

But for us, once the Chanukah candles burned down,

there was nothing but boredom all over town.

The malls and the theaters were all closed up tight;

there weren’t any concerts to go to that night.

A dance would have saved us, some ballroom or swing,

but we combed through the papers; there wasn’t a thing.

Outside the window sat two feet of snow;

with the wind-chill, they said, it was fifteen below.

And while all I could do was sit there and brood,

my gal saved the night and called out: “Chinese food!”

So we ran to the closet, grabbed hats, mitts, and boots –

to cover our heads, our hands and out foots.

We pulled on our jackets, all puffy with down,

and boarded the T, bound for Chinatown.

The train nearly empty, it rolled through the stops,

while visions of wantons danced through our kopfs.

We hopped off at Park Street; the Common was bright,

with fresh-fallen snow and the trees strung with lights,

then crept through “The Zone” with its bums and its thugs,

and entrepreneurs pushing ladies and drugs.

At last we reached Chinatown, rushed through the gate,

Past bakeries, markets, shops and cafes,

in search of a restaurant: “Which one? Let’s decide!”

We chose “Hunan Chazer,” and ventured inside.

 

Around us sat others, their platters piled high

with the finest of fine foods their money could buy:

There was roast duck and fried squid (sweet, sour and spiced),

dried beef and mixed veggies, lo mein and fried rice.

There was whole fish and moo shi and shrimp chow mee foon,

and General Gau’s chicken and ma po tofu…

When at last we decided, and the waiter did call,

we said: “Skip the menu!” and ordered it all.

And when in due time the food was all made,

it came to the table in a sort of parade.

Before us sat dim sum, spare ribs and egg rolls,

and four different soups, in four great, huge bowls.

And chicken wings! Dumplings! And beef teriyakis!

And fried scallion pancakes—‘cause they’re kinda like latkes.

 

The courses kept coming, from spicy to mild,

and higher and higher toward the ceiling were piled.

And while this went on, we were aware

every diner around us had started to stare.

Their jaws hanging open, they looked on unblinking;

some dropped their teacups, some drooled without thinking.

So much piled up, one dish, then another,

my girlfriend and I couldn’t see one another!

 

Now we sat there, we two, without proper utensils,

while they handed us something that looked like two pencils.

We poked and we jabbed till our fingers were sore,

and half of our dinner wound up on the floor.

We tried – How we tried! – but, sad truth to tell,

ten long minutes later and still hungry as heck,

we swallowed our pride, feeling vaguely like dorks,

and called to our waiter to bring us two forks.

 

Then we fressed and we feasted, we slurped and we munched;

we noshed and we supped, we breakfast and lunched.

We ate near to bursting and drank down our teas,

and barely had room for the fortune cookies.

But my fortune was perfect; it summed up the mood

when it said: “Pork is kosher, when it’s in Chinese food.”

And my girlfriend—well…she got a real winner;

Hers said: ‘Your companion will pay for the dinner.”

 

Our bellies were full and at last it was time

to travel back home and write down this rhyme

of our Chinatown trek (and to privately speak

about trying to refine our chopstick technique).

The MSG spun ‘round and ‘round in our heads,

and we tripped and we laughed, and gaily we said,

as we schlepped all our leftovers home through the night:

“Good yom tov to all—and to all a Good Night!

This parody lampoons several recurring themes pervasive in the Jewish affinity for Chinese food: the Jewish penchant for Chinese food on Christmas, the ineptness of eating with chopsticks, a lack of understanding of what foods are being referred to because of their Chinese names, and the passion with which they are eaten.  Selecting “Hunan Chazer” as the restaurant of choice reflects the irony of Jews eating non-kosher food, called in Yiddish “chazer,” or pig. The boisterousness of the evening is described by the food that kept coming (“The courses kept coming, from spicy to mild, and higher and higher toward the ceiling were piled”), which was contrasted with the boredom they experienced at home on Christmas Eve. The couple’s euphoria is symbolized by the MSG that was present to heighten the couple’s awareness: “The MSG spun round and round in our heads, and we tripped and we laughed ….”

According to Bruce Marcus and Lori Factor-Marcus, “We began Erev Christmas on December 24, 1992 – one year to the day before it was published on the op-ed page of the Boston Globe – on the back of a placemat in a restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown. In those days, the Boston Globe published Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on the front page every December 24th. That poem was our inspiration; we decided to write a spoof that described how we spent our Christmas Eve…We took some flak for Erev Christmas. After it was published, a few people took us to task for representing non-traditional Jewish dietary habits. Most, however, seemed to take our doggerel in the playful spirit in which it was written. And lastly, when asked if this is a true story (and sometimes even when we are not asked), we explain to folks that we remember there being little or no snow on the ground on Christmas Eve, 1992, and we actually do know how to use chopsticks.” The first performance of the poem by Marcus was at a Jewish Storyteller’s Coalition. Marcus’s performance of “Erev Christmas” has become part of the American Jewish folk tradition through it widespread dissemination by e-mail, print media and YouTube.

Other parodies, including some that have appeared on YouTube, mimic the function of Chinese restaurants to save Jews from being bored on Christmas. In 2006, Brandon Walker composed the enormously popular song “Chinese Food on Christmas,” as reflected by the high number of visits to this YouTube video. In 2006 there were over 583,000 visits to the site while in 2007 there were three times as many and over 2,000 comments. By 2015, the song had 1,900,000 viewings. In the lyrics of his YouTube parody, Brandon wakes up on Christmas day and sees a Christmas tree barren of presents because Santa Claus was not going to appear in a Jewish house. Brandon sings, “What’s a Jew to do on Christmas?” The answer is: “I eat Chinese on Christmas because there ain’t much to do on Christmas.”  Once at the restaurant, he joins a band that turns this culinary experience into a Jewish celebration, complete with stereotypical Jewish music, a Jewish wedding dance (lifting the groom off the floor while seated in a chair), and the blowing of the shofar. The song’s music and dance address the depth to which eating Chinese food has become integrated in the American Jewish psyche and how happy Jews are to be immersed in activities on Christmas Eve and Day.

See prior blog posting: “So What About Jews and Chinese Food?” (December 9, 2014)

Chapter 3 of  A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season To Be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut provides the definitive history of the origin of Jews eating Chinese Food and its evolution into a sacred secular Jewish ritual.

For a definitive list of Chinese restaurants in NYC catering to the busiest day of the year for Chinese food, see: A New Yorker’s Guide to Chinese Food for Christmas (http://www.amny.com/eat-and-drink/chinese-food-for-christmas-in-new-york-city-1.9703839)

So What About Jews and Chinese Food?

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We all know that eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve is a sacred Jewish tradition. Chinese restaurants became a favorite eatery for Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States and to New York City, in particular, in the early twentieth century. The origin of this venerated Christmas Jewish tradition dates back over one hundred years to the Lower East Side of New York City. Jews found Chinese restaurants readily available in urban and suburban areas in America where both Jews and Chinese lived in close proximity.

Historically, the first mention of this phenomenon was in 1899. The American Hebrew weekly journal criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, singling out in particular Jews who flocked to Chinese restaurants.  And in 1903, the Yiddish language newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward coined the Yiddish word oysesseneating out–to describe the growing custom of Jews eating outside the home in New York City.

Chinese cuisine clearly was an inexpensive and exotic alternative to the more familiar and expensive foods served at Jewish delicatessens. It was a happy coincidence that Chinese restaurants stayed open on Christmas Eve and gave Jews across the United States a natural venue in which to partake of their own version of Christmas dinner. “Eating Chinese” on Christmas was a recognized Jewish preference as early as 1935, when the New York Times reported that restaurant owner Eng Shee Chuck brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark, New Jersey. This is the first recorded incidence of  Chinese take- out and home-delivery to American Jews occurring on Christmas Eve.

“Eating Chinese” soon became a national sensation that defined Christmas-time activity for Jews all over the United States.  As immigrants arrived from other parts of Asia, the concept of “easting Chinese” on Christmas Eve has broadened to other types of Asian cuisine, as evidenced by a recent New York Times Magazine article  entitled “Joy From The World” on December 7, 2014, which reports about a Jewish-Japanese Christmas repast. Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel meld their traditions together for shared Christmas meal which includes “okonomi-latke.” (A combination of potato pancakes often eaten on Hanukkah and okonomiyaki, a savory pancake popular in Japanese street food.) According to the Times, “what started in their home has made its way onto the menu [on Christmas] this year of their restaurant, Shalom Japan, in Williamsburg…”

As a popular joke reflecting on this affinity for Jews to eat in Chinese restaurants states: “The Jewish people are 5000 years old and the Chinese people are 3000 years old. So what did the Jews eat for 2000 years?” Perhaps you have a story to share about your own Christmas Eve and Christmas Day restaurant outing!

What is that song playing in my ear?

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Jews have played a crucial role in popularizing Christmas. They have enhanced the national observance of Christmas by composing many of the Christmas songs beloved by all Americans. More secular than religious, these songs, among them Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Walter Rollins and Steve Fletcher’s “Frosty the Snowman,” and, most recently, Paul Simon’s “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” remind celebrants that Christmas belongs to all Americans who share in the spirit of patriotism, generosity, peace, and good will. Ironically, other Jews in the United States have developed strategies to downplay the significance of Christmas by composing poems and songs–in print, performance, and the media–that satirize and neutralize the religious nature of the holiday. Humorous songs and comedic performances offer outlets for the disenfranchised to vent disappointment over society’s fixation with the crass commercialization of Christmas.

Harboring an appreciation for music, I listened to many Hanukkah record albums and compact discs that introduced new songs to the public. This led to my discovering musical parodies of Christmas and Hanukkah that were recorded on specialty labels and eventually recreated on CDs, DVDs, and YouTube. Check out the following:
• Kosher Christmas Carols (Audio CD, September 4, 2007)
• ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah – The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights (Audio CD, Idelsohn Society)
• Brandon Walker – “Chinese Food on Christmas” (brandonwalkermusic.com)
• “Jewmongous” – seanaltman.com
• ‘It’s Christmas for the Jews” (Saturday Night Live)