The restaurant is so busy on Christmas that perhaps booking a year in advance is the only failproof way to guarantee a table. According to Eric Hornfeldt, the general manager, customers hoping to reserve a last-minute table on the restaurant’s busiest day are remarkably persistent, but it’s often for naught.
“They’ll call, and we’ll say ‘We’re jammed from 4 to 7,’ and then they’ll go, ‘Alright, what about 3?’ and then, ‘Alright, we’re jammed 3 to 8,’ then, ‘OK, we’ll go at 2,’” said Hornfeldt, laughing. “The schedule’s booked all day, and they just want to get in.”
Hornfeldt’s estimate that 65 percent of the clientele on Christmas Day are Jewish won’t come as much of a shock. Each Christmas since the late 19th century, American Jews have been on Chinese food like white on rice.
“It’s what we do – I can’t remember a time when we didn’t do it,” said David Deutsch, 57, a digital art designer from Marblehead. For the past few years, Deutsch and his wife, Marnie, have spent Christmas at Fantasy Island in Salem. Each year, at both the restaurant and the movie theater at Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, Deutsch does an informal head count of how many others are Jewish, and how many of them he knows.
“I don’t think you can avoid that,” said Deutsch. “On Christmas Eve, [Fantasy Island] is pretty much like your local shul.”
How did a cuisine wholly unrelated to Judaism mix with a Christian holiday to create makeshift Jewish gatherings all over the country? The tradition began on the Lower East Side of New York, home to hundreds of thousands of newly arrived Eastern European Jews. Back in the Old Country, Christmas was often dangerous for Jews.
“In Eastern Europe, [Christmas] was a night of fear and persecution and a time for pogroms,” said Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, who leads the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan and wrote the book “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish.”
On the Lower East Side, Jews looked for spaces where they’d feel welcome and accepted on Christmas. The many restaurants in nearby Chinatown were the perfect venue. According to Plaut, they were among the very few places that were open, and they were cheap – often a great deal less than the Jewish delicatessens that were also open. The food, while not kosher, was more acceptable to Jewish immigrants than most other cuisines, because it contained no dairy, and non-kosher elements such as pork and shellfish were not as recognizable to Jews.
Most importantly, however, they were a place where Jews felt comfortable. “The Chinese accepted Jews and other immigrants and ethnic groups as customers without precondition,” said Plaut. “When you go into a Chinese restaurant, there’s no anti-Semitism to overcome, because Chinese waiters and owners had no history of prejudice.”
By the mid-20th century, the tradition had moved well beyond the Lower East Side, and Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas was a well-established phenomenon. As time went on, more ethnicities moved to the United States, and more types of cuisine were available on Christmas.
Merle Hyman, a retired attorney from Swampscott, chooses a movie she wants to see, and then finds an interesting restaurant nearby. Hyman likes to drive closer to Boston, where both options are expanded.
“We would go all over the place, and I’m weird enough that I don’t mind driving to Arlington or Somerville or Brookline if there’s a movie there that I want to see, so we’d see a movie and then go out to a restaurant,” said Hyman. “We’d do a Thai restaurant, or Indian or Vietnamese.”
As Hyman and Deutsch have noted, going out to eat on Christmas is usually only half of the fun: Jews like to go to the movies as well. Everyone interviewed for this article noted that they see a movie either before or after dinner. According to Plaut, the tradition grew out of Lower East Side Jews going to nickelodeon movie theaters or Yiddish theaters on Christmas en masse.
“I do remember going to the movies and getting Chinese food, because you go to Liberty Tree Mall, and Su Chang’s is only a few blocks away,” said Dr. Michael Silverman, a rheumatologist and medical consultant from Marblehead, referencing the popular Peabody Chinese restaurant whose owner, Suzanne Waite, is half-Jewish. “I do remember a couple times going to the movies and being impressed by seeing a lot of other Jews – it’s kind of like Yom Kippur; you see them once a year.”
Another long-established Jewish Christmas tradition is volunteerism, because it is both in the spirit of the holiday, and it allows Christian friends and neighbors to celebrate the holiday. Hyman delivers food for Meals on Wheels on Christmas morning. Meryl Rich, a retired Epstein Hillel teacher who lives in Swampscott, serves food at the Lynn Emergency Shelter. Silverman found time between Chinese food and a movie to work on Christmas so his Christian colleagues wouldn’t have to.
“I always chose to work Christmas because it didn’t mean anything to me, and I figured it would give some of my colleagues if they celebrate Christmas more of an opportunity for a break,” said Silverman. “It was just another workday.”
Christmas is more than just another workday for the staff at local Chinese restaurants, who work overtime on their busiest day of the year. Still, they are grateful to the Jewish community for its continued support.
“I’m so glad that we serve food in the Jewish community and we appreciate a lot of Jews who support us,” said Karen Lin, the owner of Fantasy Island. “A lot of customers tell us, ‘I came here, used to be my parents were here, now I bring my children here.’”