Monday, December 19, 2022

An Early History of Christmas in Chinatown

The Boston Globe, December 24, 1920

This weekend, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will arrive! Chinese cuisine is extremely popular on both days, especially with the Jewish community, and they are a couple of the busiest days for Chinese restaurants all year round. Christmas itself is celebrated all across the city of Boston, including in Chinatown, but that wasn't always the case. Let's explore the early history of Christmas in Chinatown. 

The neighborhood of Chinatown was established around 1884, and the first mention I found of Christmas and Chinatown was from 1892, eight years later. Obviously, as a new immigrant community, Chinatown wouldn't have immediately adopted Christmas traditions. They had their own holiday traditions, especially Chinese New Year. They knew little, if anything, of Christmas when they first arrived in the U.S.

In the Boston Globe, December 27, 1892, the writer explored Chinatown to ascertain whether anyone was celebrating Christmas or not. Initially, he found none of the Chinese celebrated Christmas, except he then spied a Christmas wreath in the window of a 4th story apartment. The writer entered the building, to seek out more details, and in the hall he also heard a woman singing a Christmas carol. He knocked at the door, but the woman wouldn't let him in, although she did speak to him through the door.

She told him that the wreath was for her little boy, and also that she was not Chinese. She then noted that she originally came from San Francisco and had been married before, although he first husband died about 15 years ago. They had celebrate Christmas together, so she carried that tradition with her to Chinatown.  

Five years later, the Boston Herald, December 26, 1897, ran an article that began noting, "Christmas is a sort of mystery to most of the Chinamen in the quarter. It is the occasion of an extra Sunday, without the influx of country visitors that the real Sunday always brings." The article noted that Harrison Avenue on Christmas Day was one of the quietest places in the city, especially as most laundrymen were working as normal. "The majority of merchants say that it is a day that concerns Christians only."

The article continued, "But they say that their people have no reason to be interested in the 25th of December, and they point to the empty stores and restaurants and the deserted streets and alleys as proof that what they say is true." Interestingly, it was noted that the Chinese restaurants were relatively empty, that non-Chinese weren't dining there during the holiday. That would change a year later. 

However, some of the Chinese merchants with children had a bit of a different outlook, and actually engaged in some Christmas celebrations. "Through their children they have made American friends, and these friends send presents on Christmas." In addition, the Chinese children seemed to embrace the tale of Santa Claus. Thus, the first touches of Christmas traditions had come to Chinatown due to their children, the new generation, and the more children that were born meant that Christmas would become more popular.  

The popularity of Chinese restaurants on Christmas! The Boston Globe, December 26, 1898, reported, “Down in Chinatown Christmas was observed in the ‘same old way.’ The Chinamen simply regard it as a pretty good time for business, and they are not so far out of the way, judging from last evening, for every restaurant in Chinatown was crowded by white folks.” These restaurants might have been some of the only ones open on Christmas Day, and they obviously appealed to many people. A big change from only a year ago. So, for over 120 years, Chinese restaurants have been popular on Christmas. 

Christmas traditions grew in Chinatown. The Boston Post, December 21, 1901, mentioned, “The Chinaman naturally has no particular sympathy with Christmas Day. An ordinary day it is to him until he becomes Americanized. Then it is like Fourth of July in a way.” The article continued, “Therefore, the Chinese quarter is beginning to put on its evergreen tinge. The restaurants and shops put on holiday garb, Christmas gifts are spread out on the counters and the Chinese resident begins to imbibe the Christmas spirit of his American neighbors.” 

In addition, all of the shops, but not the restaurants, were closed on Christmas Day. Finally, the article noted, “In the homes of Chinatown the mutli-colored lights will burn, the feast day offerings will be passed around, little gifts will be made to the younger members of the families.”

There was a slightly different perspective from another newspaper. The Boston Herald, December 26, 1901, stated "Christmas day has no sentimental attachment for Chinamen in general." The larger merchant stores observed the Christmas season, trying to appeal to holiday shoppers. Christmas Day had also become a day of rest for many Chinese, who closed their shops around noon. A few of the restaurants offered a Christmas dinner, commonly offering turkey meals. The writer also spoke to one Chinese man who stated Christmas isn't that popular in Chinatown, as they prefer to save their money for the celebration of Chinese New Year. Moy Loy, the "king of Chinatown," celebrated Christmas at his home with his family, his wife and two children, and that celebration included a turkey dinner. . 

A year later, the Boston Herald, December 26, 1902, reported that, "Five little children out of the entire population in Chinatown were the only ones to celebrate Christmas." The children, aged 5-8 years old, attended the Christmas tree celebration at the Harvard Street Baptist Church. In Chinatown, it was said that Christmas Day is simply seen as similar to an extra Sunday to them. Once again it was also noted that the Chinese save their major celebration for Chinese New Year.

However, another year later, the Boston Herald, December 26, 1903, noted that many in Chinatown observed the Christmas holiday, with most businesses, except the restaurants being closed. Those restaurants were once again quite busy until late in the night. The article also mentioned that a number of Chinese engaged in the tradition of gift giving.

The festivities continued. The Boston Herald, December 27, 1904, reported that Chinatown was a major attraction for visitors who came for Christmas holiday, and the restaurants were extremely busy. A number of visitors, who had never been to Chinatown, explored the neighborhood, some very tentatively. "It was a jolly and good natured crowd that gathered in these places to round out their Christmas holiday, ..."

Seven years later, the Boston Journal, December 26, 1911, stated Chinatown was very quiet, celebrating Christmas. “It is true that the Chinamen do not observe Christmas as do their Christian neighbors. But even with them it is a season of gift-giving.” It was also noted, “In Chinatown they celebrated Christmas not as a Christian, but as a Celestial feast.” I'm not fully sure about the accuracy of that statement, considering how many Chinese during this time attended Sunday School and/or converted to Christianity. Their more religious celebratory activities might have been much less visible, and this not obvious to the newspaper writers.

The article then continued, adding more intriguing details, which also seem to be a bit unusual. “In Chinatown, Christmas was merry. The little boys were merry because their honored parents had given them many presents. The little girls were happy because they had received many ‘slave dolls.’ For some explanation, “The little girls get flaxen hair dolls from Germany, which they called their slaves, the second, third and fourth wives, and so on.” This appears to be the only newspaper reference I found concerning such alleged "slave dolls" so it seems to be lacking supporting evidence. 

More details were provided about the gifts to the boys. “The sons receive richly embroidered stoles from their fathers, and bags of coins, each coin with a hole in it, from their their mothers. And the young men receive brides.” A Christmas bride? 

And by the 1920s, Chinatown apparently had fully embraced Christmas traditions. The Boston Herald, December 23, 1923, mentioned, “Down in Chinatown the store windows are resplendent with decorations.” It continued, “The Chinese, even those who have not accepted the Christian faith, have adopted the custom of gift interchange and the holding of social gatherings.”  Plenty of restaurants at this time offered special Christmas dinners, especially turkey. 

So, about 13 years after the establishment of Chinatown, there were some small celebrations of Christmas traditions in their community, especially for their children. And in 1898, white Americans started filling Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day, a tradition that has continued to the present. Over the years, Christmas celebrations slowly grew in Chinatown, so that by the 1920s, most, if not all, of the traditions had been largely embraced. 

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