Chinese food: The roots of Sacramento’s holiday tradition

An assortment of dim sum at Yue Huang in Natomas. The restaurant plans to be

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An assortment of dim sum at Yue Huang in Natomas. The restaurant plans to be open for takeout and delivery on Christmas this year, but an employee said those plans could change.

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Where was Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on Christmas Day 2009? That was the tense, loaded question Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., pressed on her during her 2010 confirmation hearing. But as Graham began to cut her off, she doubled back with one of the first moments of levity that day.

“Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,” Kagan said, causing the room to erupt into laughter.

It was a moment several California Jews said felt like a shoutout. In her attempt to diffuse the tension, Kagan referenced a Jewish tradition so commonly known as to become an inside joke — going out for Chinese food on Christmas Day, often followed by a trip to the movie theater.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever done a year where we haven’t done it,” said UC Davis senior Eliana Bono.

Not every Jew observes this modern tradition — in fact, several people who spoke with The Bee said they had only recently started doing so. But all agreed that it is a well-known quirk, an unexpected custom many Jews said they’ve done for so long that they’ve forgotten why and how their families started.

“Last couple of years … you couldn’t get into the restaurants,” said UC Davis history professor David Biale. “The movie theaters were packed to the gills.”

Why and how did this become a thing? Many Jewish residents across the Sacramento and Central Valley area offered their own theories, such as the fact that Chinese food rarely mixes dairy and meat, which is against kosher rules. Others said Chinese restaurants are simply often the only places open Christmas Day.

But several also pointed to the sense of community that stems from creating traditions that buck predominant cultural norms, a unity derived from the acknowledgment of cultural differences.

“There’s a sense like, ‘Well, you need something to do, right?’” said Congregation Bet Haverim Rabbi Greg Wolfe in Davis. “Walking around Christmas, the streets are pretty quiet … It makes sense that we would create something that would fill that void.”

Both elements of this tradition — eating indoors and going to a movie theater — will be impossible this holiday season. Those who still have a holiday hankering for Chinese food will have to turn to delivery apps and takeout, and queue up their streaming services.

But the sense of community remains, a secular way to celebrate Christmas that can still remain reaffirming for many Jews.

“There’s the feeling of doing something different,” Biale said. “The music, the decorations … We don’t do any of that. And so when we get together, there’s a sense that … we’re doing our thing. They’re doing their thing, we’re doing our thing.”

How it looks in Sacramento and the Central Valley

Some Jews said something as simple as going out for Chinese food on Christmas can help to combat that feeling of being “other,” recognizing that there is community to be built in not following the Christian traditions that dominate much of American life.

For Bono, going out for Chinese food with her family on Christmas is a balm for the identity crisis the holidays sometimes create for her. She enjoys things like the decorations, lights and music, but often feels like it’s being forced on her. It’s an internal tension that’s at times left her feeling like an outsider.

“It makes me feel un-American sometimes,” Bono said. “Having Chinese food on Christmas … you know that you’re in that community because you see other Jewish families eating there and you’re like, ‘This is how we celebrate Christmas. We’re going to do what we do as Jews. We’re going to get Chinese food.’”

Abigail Siegel, a sophomore at UC Davis, grew up in New Jersey with Chinese food on the table every Christmas, especially her go-to of hot-and-sour soup, she said. There are less Chinese restaurants around now that she lives in the Central Valley, she said, though her family’s gone as far as to drive to San Francisco for their Christmas Chinese food venture.

“Those are the only things that are open really on Christmas Day,” Siegel said. “I think that’s the whole reason why this came about.”

Rabbi Matt Rosenberg grew up in Sacramento, and going out for Chinese food on Christmas was a tradition he didn’t cement for himself until adulthood. But he has fond memories of going out for Chinese food in Los Angeles with his grandparents as a child, he said.

“If you don’t have some kind of tradition and you’re in America, what do you do on Christmas?” Rosenberg said. “(It was a) way to celebrate being American and (work) towards middle-class status. You combine that with a movie and it’s a good way to spend the day.”

He’s vegan now, but he still likes to frequent Andy Nguyen’s Vietnamese Restaurant on Broadway, or Anna’s Vegan Cafe on Stockton Boulevard, both of which serve up vegan versions of classic takeout favorites like beef and broccoli.

Several pointed out that more Orthodox Jews would likely avoid non-kosher restaurants entirely. Still, Wolfe said, it’s common enough that he could regularly expect to see his friends and congregation members every Christmas around Chinese restaurants and movie theaters. Last year, he said, three tables at Wok of Flame in Davis were filled with his congregation’s members.

“It was like a reunion of the synagogue,” Wolfe said.

There’s a level of comfort, he said, in knowing your community is creating traditions of their own together.

“Now I think it’s perpetuated more by maybe a sense of nostalgia or memory,” Wolfe said. “We’ve created a Jewish holiday around its non-Jewish holiday rite.”

A history of Chinese and Jewish community

It’s hard to pinpoint when and how this tradition got started, but according to Rabbi Joshua Plaut, author of “A Kosher Christmas,” it goes as far back as the 19th century in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Jewish and Chinese American communities lived in close proximity. The first documentation of Jewish people dining at Chinese restaurants appeared in 1899, Plaut writes, when the American Jewish Journal criticized Jewish people for eating at non-kosher restaurants — particularly, Chinese restaurants.

It’s since spread across the country. One of San Francisco’s longest-running comedy shows is Kung Pao Comedy, a Jewish comedy club that holds a special Christmas show every year in a Chinese restaurant.

As for the post-dinner movie theater connection, Plaut writes that during those early parts of the 20th century, movies were one of the main sources of entertainment poor Jewish immigrants could afford. Theaters were also conveniently open on Christmas Day, one of the few holidays they would have off work.

Biale also drew connections from the folkloric traditions of Eastern European Jewish culture, from which many American Jews are descended. Historically, Biale said, Eastern European Jews made a conscious effort to deviate from their normal routines on Christmas Eve, even if that deviation was as minor as playing a game of chess.

This was done in order to ward off the imagined bad magic that came with celebrating Christian figures like Jesus, Biale said, although American Jews have long abandoned such views. But the cultural memory may have remained, Biale said, a lingering sense of the desire to do something different on Christmas.

“I think it’s just a sense of, ‘This is how we establish our difference from the larger culture,” Biale said. “We are all Americans, but we have our cultural differences. We want to mark them for ourselves. I think that’s one of the strengths of American multiculturalism.”

A new kind of Christmas this year for Sacramento’s Chinese restaurants

Christmas is usually one of the busiest days of the year for Yue Huang in Natomas, according to an employee. This year will look very different — they plan to be open for takeout and delivery, but the representative stressed that those plans could change closer to Christmas.

If you’re planning to order Chinese food this holiday season, the best idea would be to call ahead of time to confirm your favorite place will be open. You can order from most Chinese restaurants in the Sacramento and Central Valley area over the phone or through delivery apps such as GrubHub, DoorDash, UberEats and Postmates.

There’s some indication that the tradition may be spreading beyond the Jewish community. Chinese restaurants have always been packed to the rafters on Christmas, but in the last few years especially the wait has been particularly egregious, several said.

Many restaurants, such as Yue Huang, don’t take reservations on Christmas, and Bono said her family often bounces from one restaurant to another to avoid hours-long wait times.

Biale, who lives in Berkeley, abandoned this routine entirely a few years ago when the wait times simply became too much. The heightened foot traffic, he said, is an indication that the habit has been adopted by non-Jewish people as well.

But he’s not saddened or annoyed by this. Rather, it’s a good reminder of the fluidity of cultural traditions, he said, the kind of fluidity that allows for unexpected quirks like the one Jews created and maintain today.

“It’s a real thing,” Biale said. “These kinds of customs, they change. They go through transformations. That’s just how culture works.”

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Ashley Wong covers Sacramento’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community for The Sacramento Bee in partnership with Report for America. A graduate of University of California, Berkeley, she has written for USA Today and the East Bay Express.