SALT LAKE CITY — As is traditional on Dec. 24, the whole town is expected to shut down this Tuesday night. The stores will be closed; the freeways will be wide open; the kids will be at home peeking through the blinds looking for a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer; not a creature will be stirring.
Well, with the exception of the New Golden Dragon restaurant on State Street. It will be packed.
Every year, Jewish people by the dozens – this year they’re expecting more than 100 – show up on Christmas Eve at the New Golden Dragon to eat … Chinese food.
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By Jewish standards, the custom isn’t even close to being old.
The religion has been around 5780 years. The practice of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve: about 120 years.
It dates back to New York City circa 1899, according to Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, who has researched the matter and written about it in a book called “A Kosher Christmas.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Jewish immigrants and Chinese immigrants found themselves huddled together in close proximity on the lower east side of Manhattan.
One thing they had in common was neither group celebrated Christmas.
So the Chinese kept their restaurants open – and the Jews ate at them.
It became a thing.
“It’s an easy food to eat, right?” said Alex Shapiro, executive director of the United Jewish Federation of Utah. “And people also joke about the fact that Jews will keep kosher, because Chinese food is virtually cooked without dairy, meaning there’s no mixing of the milk and meat. So you can generally be pretty safe.
“There’s no religious aspect involved, no symbolic reason for the tradition,” Shapiro is quick to emphasize. “It’s something fun to do on a day when a lot of your friends are doing something else.”
Here in Utah, the tradition went from being more of an individual event to an organized activity six years ago, when the United Jewish Federation of Utah decided to invite everyone to get together at the same Chinese place.
Chad Schaeffer, the federation’s community outreach person, put the event together.
“Chad noticed that there were people who had moved here without family, students without anywhere to go, and other transplants, so it’s sort of collecting those who are looking for another family to eat with,” said Joy Fisher, the federation’s development coordinator.
They held the first three events at the Asian Star restaurant in Midvale. Attendance grew every year, prompting the move in 2017 from the Asian Star to the New Golden Dragon, because it’s bigger.
“They’re great to us. They let us kinda just take over the whole joint that night,” said Schaeffer, who as part of the event, passes out goody bags to children filled with coloring pages, games, word searches and age appropriate books – although he doesn’t wear a white beard and a red suit when he’s doing it.
You don’t have to be Jewish to attend Chinese Food Night on Christmas Eve. Gentiles are welcome.
“It’s an open-to-the-community event,” said Fisher. “We publicize it online; it’s on Facebook. We usually get some Christians. Although they tend to come with a Jew.”
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For many Utah Jews, the non-Christmas Christmas traditions continue on Christmas morning at an event called Shalom Salaam Tikkun-Olam.
“Shalom” and “Salaam,” Shapiro explains, “mean peace or hello in Hebrew and Arabic,” while “Tikkun-Olam” is a Hebrew phrase that translates to “repair the world.”
For the past 27 years, the Salt Lake chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, in collaboration with other service-minded groups in the community, has coordinated the dispersing of clothing, food and supplies on Dec. 25 to refugees, homeless families, homebound seniors and others in the Salt Lake Valley who are in need.
Hundreds of volunteers report early Christmas morning to West High School, where the goods have been collected and put together during the school holiday break.
Shapiro’s family participates in Shalom Salaam Tikkun-Olam every Christmas.
“It’s a fabulous event. My boys are coming back for it again this year,” he said. “They now live in other cities, but they return for the holidays. We’ve been doing this as a family for years.”
“Do you know what we do when it’s over?” Shapiro asks.
“We’re hungry. We go and have more Chinese food.”