There’s a scene in the classic (albeit overrated) holiday film A Christmas Story (1983) where the neighbours’ bloodhounds demolish Ralphie’s turkey dinner. The final scene has Ralphie, his parents and brother seated in the local Chop Suey Palace serenaded by heavily-accented waiters.
Not as common as Christmas movie staples like single moms losing the spirit of the season, or Santa Claus feeling unappreciated, nonetheless, but a recurring festive inclusion is Chinese food: that, on occasions, sweet treats and English-style roasted meats are sidelined in favor of dumplings and stir fries.
While watching too many hours of Christmas films for a book I prepared earlier, I progressively added to a file I titled ‘Chinese food’.
What was with all the Chinese food at Christmastime? Is anyone really going to General Tso’s on Christmas Day?
Apparently they are. On screen and in real life.
In Love the Coopers (2015), grandpa Bucky is hospitalised on Christmas Day. Lauren—the girlfriend of Bucky’s grandson—downplays the selflessness of her visit: ‘It’s no big deal,’ she says. ‘We’re Jewish so we’re just getting Chinese food.’ In The Flight Before Christmas (2015), Stephanie, Jewish and freshly-dumped, laments the demise of her holiday plans: ‘This is literally the worst Christmas ever… I was supposed to be home with Brian, ordering Chinese food.’
Lauren and Stephanie introduce us to the most obvious demographic noshing on noodles in late December: the Jews.
Isaac Zablocki opens his Huffington Post article with the line, ‘There is an old Talmudic debate about whether one should eat Chinese food on Christmas after going to a movie, or before.’ Here, Zablocki wryly spotlights the clichéd Jewish way of ‘celebrating’ the Christian holiday. Writing on the same subject for the New York Times, Alex Witchel claims that Chinese restaurateurs name Christmas as their ‘busiest day of the year’.
Chinese restaurants have long been a reliable dining option for American Jews at Christmas simply because they often continue to trade when everything else has closed. When Tracy in Office Christmas Party (2016) speaks of staying in the city over the holidays—’It’s like some awesome plague came and spared me and the Chinese restaurants’—she’s making this point. If everything else is closed for the season, lemon chicken becomes an easy solution.
Sociologists however, seem to think there’s a tad more going on than the Chinese just serving up a kind of dire straits meal for hungry Jews.
Gaye Tuchman and Harry Gene Levin address the Jews/Chinese food dyad citing as explanations affordability, menu options—with Chinese fare often being dairy-free—and that consumption of the ‘exotic’ cuisine connoted that a Jew was modern, not provincial or parochial. Another rationale they propose is shared otherness: that the Jews and Chinese in America are linked by living away from their ancestral homes.
While ideas around food and the diaspora have resonance year-round, feelings of outsiderness are likely heightened at Christmas. With the holiday inextricably bound to family, arguably there’s an additional yen to be somewhere bustling even if you’re not celebrating.
Chinese food though, isn’t only for the Chosen. Sites like Slate have drawn on data supplied by food delivery services to note a spike in Chinese food orders at Christmastime. Apparently sales rise even in places without many Jews.
Regardless of faith or lack thereof, people who aren’t Christmassing need to eat. Chinese restaurants can feed them. Equally, going to a movie or eating lo mein on December 25 can fulfil a yen for secular ritual.
Based on the 1000 Christmas films I watched, cinema tends to depict the Chinese food/Christmas link in two distinct ways (and commonly, in fact, without any religious reference). The first are scenes where, like Ralphie’s family at the Chop Suey Palace, the meal might not have been the family’s first choice, but the celebration still ends up being lovely and memorable.
In The Miracle of the Bells (1948) for example, Bill and Olga reunite in small-town Iowa years after first meeting and parting. The only place open is the local chop suey joint. The two fall in love while partaking of Ming Gow’s mysterious culinary offerings. In Scrooged (1988), a Christmastime meet cute sees Frank and Claire fall in love over their impromptu first-date at a Chinese place. In Secret of Giving (1999), impoverished single mom, Rose, gets help for her son from a Chinese medicine practitioner, Wong. On Christmas Eve, Rose and Wong prepare a large Chinese food banquet for their community. In One Christmas Eve (2014), misadventure leads Nell, her children and a ragtag posse of strangers to spend Christmas Eve in a police station. The group later reconvene for a celebration with Chinese food. In each example, Chinese food is part of a happy, if unconventional, social celebration.
The screen’s second—and more common—presentation is that Chinese food is the meal of last resorts. That for those who partake of Peking duck instead of plum pudding, something surely has gone awry.
In The Mistletoe Promise (2016), lonely hearts Nick and Elise eat wonton soup—albeit separately—in a mall food court throughout the Christmas period. In The March Sisters at Christmas (2012), lonely heart Mark’s plans involve ‘movies and Chinese food’. In Fir Crazy (2013), spiritless Elise’s holiday consists of ‘Chinese take-out and a stocking’. In Trading Christmas (2011), lonely heart Tom’s Christmas is ‘Chinese food and Celtics’. For EJ in 12 Men of Christmas (2009), after dumping her cheating fiancé, she spends the holiday alone watching Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and eating Chinese food.
The undercurrent here is that lonely people—without carols in their throat or baubles in their soul—channel their misery into fried rice and kung pao chicken. Even when slightly different presentations are offered, the subtext remains that Chinese food isn’t the proper way to celebrate the season.
In Desperately Seeking Santa (2011), Jen reflects on the Christmases of her youth: Chinese takeaway for her, and a bottle of wine for Mom. In the Irish holiday film Kisses (2008), pre-teen runaway Dylan sneaks into a Chinese restaurant to eat leftovers. In A Heavenly Christmas (2016), workaholic Eve admits ‘for the third Christmas in a row, I spent the holiday at my desk eating Chinese chicken salad’. In All I Want for Christmas (2014), via a typical holiday movie body-swap, young Jamie gets to live the life of his rich but lonely school friend, including eating his friend’s Chinese takeaway dinner. In Pete’s Christmas (2013), the title character is in a Christmas Day Groundhog Day time loop. One lesson learnt is the necessity to invite his neighbours to join his family for dinner rather than let them eat Chinese food alone. Chinese cuisine in these examples, serves as a metonym for loneliness and a dismal ‘celebration’.
While occasionally it’s a ‘fun’ albeit unconventional Christmas meal option, more often than not, Chinese food consumed on screen during the holidays is presented as a deviation from what is traditional, what is normal. Christmas films commonly present an idealised, nostalgic depiction of the season and thus, eating non-traditional food is commonly framed as testimony to a festive calamity.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and the author of nine books including Analzying Christmas in Film: Santa to the Supernatural. She co-hosts Radio National’s ‘Stop Everything!’ pop culture show and Mamamia’s ‘Sealed Section’ podcast and can be found at: www.laurenrosewarne.com.