For many Jews, Christmas means Chinese food

Movies, community service are part of this ordinary day.
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At the end of the holiday film "A Christmas Story," after the turkey is stolen by the neighbor's dogs, Ralphie and the rest of the Parker family enjoy Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. People are usually amused by the singing waiters and Mr. Parker's attempt at carving the Peking duck.

But for Michelle Oelsner — and others who grew up in Jewish households — the scene is "completely hysterical" because for many Jews, Christmas is synonymous with Chinese food.

"That's what Jews do on Christmas," said the Salt Lake City transplant. "We go to the movies and eat Chinese food along with all the other Jewish families."

In New Orleans where she grew up, it "became a kind of a social thing," she said. "You knew on Christmas Day that you were going to see all your friends at the same movie theater and restaurant."

Since moving to Utah seven years ago, Oelsner and her husband have updated their family's tradition. Now the Jewish couple and their three teenage sons put in a full day of skiing. And instead of going out to a restaurant, the family cooks fried rice and chicken stir-fry at home.

There's no particular religious significance to this decidedly Jewish-American tradition. Instead, it's simply two cultures creating their own traditions while Christians are likely opening presents, eating ham and celebrating the birth of their Savior.

In December, Jews celebrate Hanukkah, which sometimes falls on or near Dec. 25. But most years including 2012, the eight-day celebration has already ended, so Dec. 25 is just a day off, Oelsner said. Conversely, for the Chinese restaurateurs who are Buddhist, Dec. 25 is just a regular business day.

Through the years, the Chinese-food-for-Christmas tradition has found a solid place in pop culture, showing up in comedy routines, movies and even a music video on YouTube, with the lyrics:

"I eat Chinese food on Christmas.

Go to the movie theater, too.

'Cause there just ain't much else to do on Christmas

When you're a Jew!"

In 2010, the tradition even reached the Supreme Court. During her confirmation hearings, Judge Elena Kagan was asked how she spent Christmas Day. She responded, "Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."

In Utah, some Jewish and Muslim families spend part of Christmas Day giving back to the community through the Shalom, Salam, Tikkun Olam interfaith program. Shalom and salaam translate from Hebrew and Arabic to "peace," and tikkun olam means "repairing the world." On Christmas Day, dozens of families take meals, gifts and household goods to refugee families and homebound seniors.

"Christmas is not a day that we have anything to do, so it's a great day to give community support. We absolutely look forward to it," said Toba Essig, who participates in the program with her husband, Ron, and their two sons, Brian, 20, and Adam, 18. But after the service project is done, they eat Chinese food.

While many businesses are open on Christmas, that wasn't always the case. Years ago, "movie theaters and Chinese restaurants were really the only places that were open," said Barrie McAllister, who grew up spending Christmas Day at the Peking Palace restaurant in Tucson.

When she and her husband moved to Utah three years ago, they decided to keep their tradition alive by eating at Little World Chinese restaurant at 1300 S. State St., Salt Lake City. It's one of several Chinese restaurants open in the Salt Lake Valley on Dec. 25, a list that includes Jasmine China Bistro, Osaka Sushi, Hong Kong Tea House, Bangkok Classic Thai, Cafe Trang, Golden Dragon, San Sauce Chinese Cuisine and Joy Luck.

Christmas is a busy day at San Sauce in West Jordan, said owner Edwin Morilno. "Most people are hungry, and there's not too many places open."

Most of the restaurant's customers order the traditional menu items: won ton soup, fried rice and lemon or sesame chicken.

"We get quite a few Jewish people on Christmas," said Han Ly, whose family operates Joy Luck restaurants in Sandy and Woods Cross.

"A lot of people want the roast duck," he said. "On an average weekend, we might sell five. But on Christmas Day, it's probably double that, so we order extra."