Even though the holiday season in America is associated with sumptuous servings of comfort food like ham, turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, a not insignificant number of us have adopted another tradition when Dec. 25 rolls around – chowing out on some chow mein, or tucking into some dumplings.
It’s long been considered a truism that Jewish families make their way to movie theaters and Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day since they are just about the only businesses that are open, aside from gas stations and hospitals. A Chinese restaurant can also be a last resort for families whose meal plans go horribly awry, as they did for the Parker family in the movie “A Christmas Story,” after their neighbor’s dog devoured their turkey.
The South Hills is dotted with Chinese restaurants, and, yes, several of them will be open for business on Christmas Day.
New Dragon Express, at 3109 Washington Pike in Bridgeville, will be open because “families like to gather and eat,” according to Justin Ye, the restaurant’s manager. “Since a lot of places are closed, they come here.”
The same goes for Classic Chinese Cuisine, at 1025 Washington Pike, in Bridgeville. “We’ll be open for customers,” said manager Amy Jiang.
In Mt. Lebanon, Jade Grille, at 670 Washington Rd., will have its doors open on Dec. 25. The restaurant has operated on Christmas Day since it opened in 2014, according to manager Justin Liu. It attracts Jewish and Asian families on Christmas, and the hardest part of being open that day is “we don’t have the help,” Liu said because everyone wants to be off on the holiday.
Aside from Jewish families, Chinese restaurants that open on Christmas Day can capture another market with few other options – travelers. That was a point that Tina You, the manager of China Express in Washington, made in Living in Washington County magazine in 2014. She explained, “On Christmas Day, a lot of people want to eat out. We get hotel people. Everyone is closed, and some people don’t have a place to eat.”
The Christmas tradition of Chinese restaurants serving Jewish customers dates back to at least 1899, according to Joshua Plaut, the author of “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish.” In 2017, he told Robert Siegel, the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” that Jews eating at Chinese restaurants goes back to at least 1935. The New York Times published a report that year about a man named Eng Shee Chuck bringing chow mein to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark, N.J., on Christmas Day.
“That’s the first written citation of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas,” Plaut said. By the 1950s, it became grist for jokes by TV comedians like Buddy Hackett and Sid Caesar.
“The Chinese restaurant was a safe haven for American Jews who felt like outsiders on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” Plaut continued. “If you go to a Chinese restaurant, you become an insider. You can celebrate somebody else’s birthday and yet be amongst friends and family and members of the tribe, thereby the outsider on Christmas becomes the insider.”