Forget the Figgy Pudding

Eat Chinese on Christmas.

In my oldest Christmas memory I am teetering on a stack of plastic booster chairs. Around the room's molding run twinkling chaser lights just like those on the neighbors' shrubbery. But even more impressive are the sights, sounds, and smells of succulent Mongolian beef cascading from a wok onto blocks of crisped rice. The wet-dry contact produces dramatic sizzling and steam, and the show is as spellbinding as fireworks. Blessings, our local Chinese restaurant, was as close to the meaning of Christmas as my 4-year-old soul could fathom. My younger brother and I were not known for exemplary restaurant behavior, so our sheepish parents usually ordered takeout and endured our antics in private. But on Christmas there was no question we would eat at the restaurant. Every year the same cast of characters would turn up on Christmas; some we knew well and greeted warmly, others we knew only by sight. Some we knew but saw only on Christmas at Blessings. As in any refugee community (we were, my parents informed us, seasonal refugees of consumerism), our club-like relationship with the other patrons included an unspoken humbug bond and a sense of communal relief that an annual crisis had passed. On the East Coast the Chinese Christmas dinner phenomenon is so widespread it arguably overshadows Hanukkah as the Jewish parallel holiday. While trimming a tree, eating turkey or ham, stuffing stockings, and opening gifts are tradition for many Americans on Christmas, paper lanterns, chopsticks, mu shu chicken, and fortune cookies are equally traditional for many others. Especially after the movies. Hollywood and Chinese restaurant owners share a potent insight: A not-insignificant percentage of the population will be bored on Christmas. Which is why Christmas Eve and Day usually constitute the year's biggest two consecutive days at the box office. Which is also why beloved Chinese restaurants that open on the holidays are rarely sorry. What is it about Chinese restaurateurs that allows them to profit on Christmas when everyone else seems so reluctant to do so? Is it more ambition or greater economic necessity? Freedom from cultural taboos? Entrepreneurial verve? Lower overhead that renders a slow night a less risky possibility? "Chinese immigrants, especially the affluent ones from Hong Kong and Taiwan, are accustomed to entertaining at restaurants on holidays," explains Vi Mar, a past president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and CEO of Chinatown Discovery Tours. "For them, it's an intimate, leisurely, stress-free alternative to staying home." Built-in ethnic community patronage seems to be the greatest incentive for restaurants to stay open. At the time of this article's printing, a fair number of restaurants hadn't yet decided whether they'd be open for Christmas. Because Seattle is less steeped in the tradition of Chinese Yuletide than many East Coast cities, it's best to call your favorite Chinese restaurant to make sure it'll be open. By the same token, if a Chinese restaurant is open, you can probably walk in without a reservation.

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