A China Christmas Story: L’chaim

Ten years ago this week, some not-too-observant American Jews living in Beijing found themselves on Christmas Eve without a plan for the holidays. Instinct kicked in: We rounded up a crowd and, as per tribal tradition, went out for a Christmas Day feast of Chinese food. Or, as I explained to my parents: “We just call it ‘food’ here.”

Such a festive occasion called for holiday bunting: a banner, as red as Rudolph’s nose, welcoming revelers from near and far in apparatchikese — “热烈欢迎犹太代表团参加第一节北京圣诞中餐晚宴” (Warmly Welcome the Jewish Delegation to the First Annual Beijing Christmas Chinese Banquet). A local shop whipped up the banner at short notice, for only slightly more than its normal price; the Stars of David, as non-standard characters, cost a little extra.

An obligatory non-smiling photo completed the occasion, a friend sent the photo to our comrade Jeremy Goldkorn at Danwei, and the legend was born. And, (almost) every Christmas since, friends old and new have carried the flame, gathering Jews and gentile groupies for an annual feast, a (usually) updated banner included, in a Christmas ritual whose lineage extends back to our original dinner (photo above). The first year, a dozen of us managed to make the pilgrimage; in years since, we switched venues to a fine Hunanese restaurant, and as word spread, up to 20 have managed to make it out for the finest non-kosher Christmas feast Beijing can offer.

This odd ritual may confuse some expat gentiles, Chinese friends, and bemused sign-shop proprietors. Its origins lie in the immigrant tenements of old New York, where Chinese and Jews mixed on the edge of mainstream, gentile society. On Christmas, when most other restaurants were closed, Chinese food offered solace. Jewish affection for Chinese cuisine goes far beyond the holidays: Historians have found a unique symbiosis between the two cultures, with otherwise kosher Jews eating out at Chinese restaurants for “safe treyf,” non-kosher food. The craving has spread to the observant, with dozens of kosher Chinese restaurants dotting North American cities. Internet memes and Philip Roth scenes round out this curious Jewish-Chinese cultural nexus, whose holiest day is, appropriately, one neither culture celebrates: Christmas.

And so, on this night, we raise a bottle of Tsingtao: Merry Christmas, and l’chaim!

Christmas 2013 and 2015: the tradition continues (pictures courtesy of Jon Kaiman)

We’re running a series of Christmas in China stories this week. Click here for more.