To paraphrase Woody Allen, life is sad because the portion is much too small. I’m not a great humanist who is going to waste your time arguing for every moment of our experiences. Much of it is filled with loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness. But the great tragedy of my life is it will contain a finite number of holiday seasons in New York City.
Growing up in the vast gentile wasteland of upstate New York, I was misled to believe that Christmas is a difficult time for the Jewish people. I perceived us as outsiders in the cold, standing outside of frosted window panes, peering in to watch America gather around an ornamented tree, fire in the hearth, singing carols and opening presents Christmas morning.
New York opens up to the Jews on December 25th. It becomes an emptied-out, hedonistic promised land of booze and hoison sauce.
As an adult, I found the opposite was true. That, in fact, it is the Jews who have realized the full potential of this holiday. While the Christmas-observing masses suffer through airport checkpoints, their aunt’s inedible fruit pie, and a second awkward gathering of the season with ex-high school classmates in their far-flung hometowns, New York opens up to the Jews on December 25th. It becomes an emptied-out, hedonistic promised land of booze and hoison sauce. It is, without question, my favorite day of the year.
And as such, I have perfected Jewish Christmas to the point that it has evolved beyond art, to science. The formula is fairly simple—here’s a step-by-step guide doing Jewish Christmas right in NYC.
JEWISH CHRISTMAS EVE
One thing the goys get right is a feast on Christmas Eve, and hopefully you followed suit. The Feast of Seven Fishes is a wonderful tradition, but whatever yours may be, do it big. I go to my friend Peter Shelsky’s, a fellow member of the tribe and lox magnate, who serves foie gras, scotch, and, of course, crown roast of pork at his table, around the corner from his appetizing store in Carroll Gardens.
JEWISH CHRISTMAS MORNING
Going big on Christmas Eve is a circuitous way of saying, sleep in Christmas morning. Not the epic hangover sleep-off of holiday parties, in which you awake the next day to a sunset—let’s say elevenish. Make sure your crew is on the same page. More so than the restaurant or the movie choice, the most important component of Jewish Christmas is the company you keep. Choose your favorites; choose wisely.
When picking a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day, there are few criteria to keep in mind, many of which offset your typical rubric of Mott Street evaluation. For starters, there will be lines to avoid. The good news is, they’re often at the worst places (i.e., Joe’s or Big Wong), with the exception of the perpetually mobbed Shanghai 456, a great secret that was ruined by Sam Sifton in 2011.
My go-to is Old Shanghai Deluxe on the corner of Mott and Bayard, not for its ethereal soup dumplings or succulent chicken feet (they do very solid dim sum that would be top-shelf in most other cities; here they’re a B+), but because of the twin flat-screen televisions mounted on the wall, certain to be showing the annual Christmas afternoon Knicks game. This can be a dicey proposition if you’re invested in the Knicks’ fortunes and they aren’t particularly good, but who am I to mess with tradition?
With lunch and the game out of the way, if you’re fortunate enough to live in an outer borough, treat yourself to a cab. Take a scenic route back over the East River, ideally over the Manhattan Bridge. Get your cab driver to tune to Hot 97. They let DJs mix on the holidays and there’s a great chance you’ll catch a perfect run of nostalgic jams.
The rule of thumb for a Jewish Christmas theater is: The bigger, the better. Christmas is, consistently, the best day of the year to go to the movies. Hollywood saves its heavy-hitters for last licks, and, as a result, a plethora of Oscar season highs and gleeful blockbuster lows will be at your disposal to mix and match. I say this because going to see just one is child’s play—I usually shoot for three. The size of the movie theater is so crucial because the bigger they are, the more lax the security. I’d tell you my favorite multiplex, but I wouldn’t want the word to get out.
You’ll of course have a 16-ounce soda bottleon your person—emptied, rinsed, and filled with whiskey. Take note: This is no time to break into that Octomore or Hukushu. You won’t be savoring this in a rocks glass by a bay window. Go for drinkable, cheap, and unobjectionable. I’m partial to Kentucky’s Early Times whiskey or Old Overholt rye, but do what works for you, so long as it’s brown and no mixer is involved. You’ll be passing the bottle amongst friends, chasing with sips of fizzy, ice cold Cherry Coke.
Every year after the movies is variable. Sometimes, it’s a holiday party, sometimes a bar, sometimes making dinner with friends; it rarely matters. You’ve already ensured that what follows will be pleasant, fuzzy aftermath.
SCHMALTZY HOLIDAY SENTIMENT
Because what’s a Jewish Christmas without schmaltz? As you may be able to tell, I love December 25th, so much so that on this day last year, I got married at Old Shanghai. The Knicks lost to the Lakers by six.
This year will be the fourth Jewish Christmas I spend with my wife, who was raised Muslim. Every year, she worships this day as I do, with a shared fervor. And in spite of its name, that’s the greatest component of Jewish Christmas: It’s all-inclusive. It’s not bound by religion or creed. It’s a celebration of affordable, outstanding, Chinese food; of prestige limited-release films; of diverse, brilliant, adventurous weirdos; and of public drunkenness. In other words, a celebration of the city itself. However you choose to celebrate, I wish you a very merry Jewish Christmas.