A Jewish family of four sharing a plate of sesame chicken on Christmas Day: It’s a holiday tradition for so many of this country's 5 million Jews. Indeed, it was a tradition throughout my own childhood.
Every year — without fail — we'd hop in the station wagon (in later years, the van) in Albany, New York, and make the 15-minute drive to Dumpling House. It was a bit like a mini-pilgrimage in the town nicknamed “Smallbany.” Dozens of Jews did the same thing at the same restaurant on Christmas Day. Walking into the place felt a bit like going to temple, but with pupu platters rather than prayer books.
I vividly recall my parents introducing my brother and me to people at table after table. Some went to our synagogue, and others were simply longtime friends of my parents who they seemingly only saw on this day of the year. Every year.
"You remember the Feinbaums?" "You're getting so big, Matt!" "How's school going?" "Break any bones lately?"
It was a rite of passage to make the rounds, usually before getting to our own table. It was a bit tortuous making this small talk. All I wanted was an egg roll and some duck sauce. The thing I didn’t realize at the time is that those experiences, which I was so eager to skip, would stick with me for life. In hindsight, the food was almost secondary. Okay, maybe not. When I say "food," I'm not talking traditional Chinese dishes: It had to be the Americanized version — complete with the overly sweet, goopy sauces on deep-fried pieces of meat. Some years my dad would order a whole fish (and, without fail, always seemed to choke on a pin bone).
We went for years. Nobody really remembers when we started. I called my parents recently to ask. The conversation went something like:
Me: "Hey, I’m doing this piece about growing up eating Chinese food on Christmas. When did we start going to Dumpling House?"
Mom: "We always did it, didn’t we?"
Dad: "Yeah. Forever."
Mom: "Since you were really little. I have no idea when we went for the first time."
It dawned on me that trying to explain the significance of eating Chinese food on Christmas is a bit like trying to explain the significance of the religion itself. There’s a quality to it that’s difficult to define. It’s just sort of the way it is; parts of it are ingrained in you.
My parents still eat Chinese food every Christmas. Although, now they order delivery instead of going out. And their new favorite Chinese food restaurant in Albany — Ala Shanghai — is too authentic for the tradition. My brother and I have long since moved out of the house — I’m 28, he’s 30. My brother is now Muslim. I’m married to a Christian. Traditions change, but memories don’t.
Christmas 2015 for me means finally putting away the menorah from celebrating Hanukkah. I'm spending the morning at my in-laws’ house, with my wife and daughter, opening presents and sitting near a Christmas tree. I’ve had a feast of fish with her Italian side of the family, and a ham dinner with the other.
As it stands now, my 1-year-old daughter won’t know the tradition of Chinese food on Christmas. And that bothers me — probably because it holds such a warm and cherished spot in my own soul. Perhaps when she’s a bit older, somewhere between home and our extended family’s house, I’ll insist on stopping by the neighborhood Chinese food restaurant for an egg roll. I’ll pass it to her in the back seat — my wife rolling her eyes — a packet of duck sauce splattered on the carpet below her feet. My daughter will begrudgingly take a bite, probably having the same thought of why I used to have at her age with my family on Christmas. Watching her in the rear-view mirror, I’ll see my own childhood playing back before me. With every crunch of the egg roll from the backseat, I’ll think of the tables full of people I never cared enough to know at the restaurant that has long since closed. And I’ll somehow remember all of them — their faces, the smells of food wafting through the restaurant, and the shared memories we were all unwittingly making together.
After all, for a Jewish child on Christmas, General Tso is a pretty damn good consolation prize for Santa.