Not everyone spends Christmas Day eating home-cooked meals beside a tree draped with tinsel and ornaments. For many Jewish families in the United States, there’s another Christmas tradition: maybe a trip to the movie theater, and definitely dinner at a Chinese restaurant.
The custom was mentioned in the New York Times as far back as 1935, and Jewish comedians like Alan King and Buddy Hackett helped solidify the trope in American culture. Even Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan joked about it during her confirmation hearing in 2010.
The tradition has its roots in religion, of course, but also in immigration patterns. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish people were one of the largest non-Christian immigrant groups in the United States, as were Chinese people. That meant there were new populations that, by and large, didn’t see December 25th as a holiday. While most other shops and restaurants in U.S. cities closed their doors for a day, many Jewish and Chinese immigrants found something of a shared experience.
“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,” said Jennifer 8. Lee, author of Fortune Cookie Chronicles and producer of the documentary film The Search for General Tso. “They knew at least in Chinese restaurants they wouldn’t be judged about being foreign.”
Today, it’s more common to find restaurants of all cuisines that are open on Christmas, compared to the early 1900s. Still, Jewish families continue to eat Chinese food on Christmas, especially in large population centers like New York. As Adam Chandler wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, “it’s more than a curiosity that a narrow culinary phenomenon that started over a century ago managed to grow into a national ritual that is both specifically American and characteristically Jewish.”
But how exactly can we quantify this ritual? Google Trends data lends some insight, showing that searches for “Chinese food” spike on Christmas compared to any other day of the year. Related phrases like “Chinese restaurant,” or adding “open” or “near me” saw a similar spike. On Yelp, the same pattern emerged: For the past six years, page views for Chinese restaurants peaked on December 25th, all more than doubling their usual share.
Of course, Google Trends doesn’t reveal the religious affiliations of the people behind those page views, but interest was often highest where large Jewish populations live. The map below breaks down the Google Trends data by state: the larger the red bubble, the larger the search interest for “Chinese food.” States with a darker shade of green have a higher share of Jewish population, using 2017 data from the Berman Jewish DataBank. New York, for example, stands out.
The top five cities searching Google for “Chinese food” last year were Philadelphia, New York City, Yonkers, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Yelp provided us a list of the 20 restaurants with the highest page views on Christmas in each of those cities, and the vast majority of restaurants were Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Asian fusion. The other top spots? Epstein’s Of Yonkers, a kosher deli; The Halal Guys, a Middle Eastern casual chain; and Katz Delicatessen, a well-known Jewish deli in Manhattan. Compare this to the rest of the year: Yelp’s most popular restaurants span a variety of other cuisines, such as Italian, Cajun, and Brazilian.
But is Chinese food really an anomaly, or do other businesses see a surge, too? We looked into what other Yelp categories had their biggest day of the year on Christmas each year from 2012 to 2017. The top categories are, unsurprisingly, focused on the essentials: pharmacies and gas stations. Next comes movie theaters, another common holiday pastime. After that, it’s a wave of pan-Asian restaurants: Chinese, buffets, noodles, Indian, Korean, and Asian fusion categories all spike on Christmas.
No matter your traditions on December 25, there’s a good chance food plays a part. For some, that might be a Christmas ham, while others make time for Peking duck.