Op-Ed

New Yorkers’ Christmas Traditions: Chinese Food, the Knicks, Meals for the Homeless

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On Christmas Day, a Brooklyn street was bustling. Couples carrying grocery bags ran into friends on street corners, double-parked cars lined the avenue and one man complained that he’d been circling the block for half an hour, looking for a parking spot.

But there were no Christmas carols, no spruce trees lining the sidewalk outside of delis and nary a twinkling light in sight.

In Borough Park, home to one of the largest communities of Orthodox Jews outside of Israel, it was not Christmas. It was just Tuesday.

In most of New York City, tourists and locals did what they usually do to celebrate: They attended Christmas Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral or spent the afternoon in pajamas watching “A Christmas Story.” (Or “Die Hard.” Please argue among yourselves.)

But there were also other rituals to be followed: Thousands of oft-disappointed but resolute Knicks fans steeled themselves for the team’s almost-annual Christmas Day game, this year against the Milwaukee Bucks. Some families flocked to homeless shelters and soup kitchens, including local politicians, who donned plastic aprons and spooned out yellow rice and collard greens at a must-stop event in Harlem.

And of course, Chinese restaurants in every corner of the city were preparing for one of their busiest days of the year, when people stand in line for hours in the cold for soup dumplings and Peking duck after a trip to the movies.

There were no lines at China Glatt, Borough Park’s main Chinese restaurant.

Around noon, orders started to roll in for chicken and broccoli with brown rice. It was a perfectly unremarkable lunch service.

A man came out of the kitchen, sipping egg drop soup. Efraim P., who declined to give his last name because he did not have his boss’s permission, is a mashgiach, or an inspector of food in kosher restaurants. He had just finished his morning routine of picking over the restaurant’s new deliveries of potatoes, carrots and frozen french fries.

“We appreciate the American holiday, we acknowledge that it’s there, but for us life goes on,” he said.

Max Lieberman, who works in the buying department at B & H, the Midtown electronics store, had the day off. So he spent his morning studying Talmud and Torah; he was working his way through the Book of Exodus. He was off to get fitted for a suit, because he doesn’t have time during the week.

“It’s the best things you can do, study, write, spend a little money,” he said.

Charles Sobel, whose company also takes Christmas off, had a slow morning. He combined his morning and afternoon prayers into one session around lunchtime at his synagogue. “Two for one,” he said.

A few blocks away, boys in puffy winter coats left their yeshivas along 43rd Street and boarded yellow school buses. Mothers looked over dolls and trinkets at nearby Toys 4 U, which had hung a Hanukkah menorah made of Legos in the window.

There was just enough traffic on the main thoroughfare, 13th Avenue, to be mildly annoying. Garbage piled up on sidewalks, because residents didn’t realize that city sanitation trucks do not pick up on Christmas.

There is meaning to be found in the mundanity of Christmas in Borough Park, said David Greenfield, a former city councilman who now runs the Met Council, a Jewish charity.

“It’s intentionally a regular day so that people don’t get the misimpression that these American Jews are in fact celebrating a Christian holiday,” Mr. Greenfield said.

At Madison Square Garden, fans came decked in their particular brand of holiday colors: the orange and blue of the New York Knicks.

This has been a New York tradition on 33rd Street for families who practice a near-religious devotion to a professional basketball team in need of good cheer.

The Knicks played the N.B.A.’s inaugural game on Christmas in 1947 (an 89-75 win over the Providence Steamrollers), and since then, no team has played more times — 53 — on Dec. 25. Of those games, 45 have been at home.

“Some anti-Knick fans, they always say, ‘Why are the Knicks always playing on Christmas Day?’” Greg Armstrong, 54, a season-ticket holder since 1992, said, his Knicks sweater blinking LED lights. “New York is Christmas, there’s nothing like Christmas time in the city, the tree, Rockefeller Center, Macy’s.”

He and his son, Daron, along with another father-son combo, Andy and Ross Baron, seated a row ahead in Section 209, have had so many Christmas game gatherings at the Garden, they have become like an extended family. “It’s been about 20 years, wouldn’t you say, Greg?” Andy Baron, 59, said.

“At least,” Mr. Armstrong replied.

Before the game, the Barons stood in line to get Bernard King’s autograph, special on this day because the father was at the Garden in 1984 to see King drop 60 points against the Nets, still a franchise record for a Christmas game. The Knicks lost all the same.

Mr. Baron, a season-ticket holder since 1991, traveled from Scotch Plains, N.J., to make the Knicks the centerpiece of his own family’s Dec. 25 ritual. “We do a Jewish Christmas,” Mr. Baron said. “We go to a Knicks game. We go to a movie and we go for Chinese food.”

The Long Island Rail Road brought fathers and sons in Knicks gear, including 15-year-old David Gold in a J.R. Smith jersey. “I’m hoping for a Christmas miracle,” he said.

The Matteson family traveled from Buffalo on Monday night for the game. When Carter Matteson, 17, ripped open his gift on Christmas morning in his hotel, he was delighted to find a sassy and brassy Knicks blazer in orange, worthy of Walt Frazier, the Knicks legend and team announcer known for his sartorial splendor.

“I knew with his personality, he wouldn’t be afraid to wear it,” Kristin Matteson, Carter’s mother, said of her son. “And it was only $150!”

At least Carter got what he wanted. The Knicks did not: They lost 109-95, dropping their Christmas Day record at home to 21-24.

As some of the Knicks were, in Mr. Frazier’s parlance, wheeling and dealing, a different form of an assist was being practiced in Harlem.

Depending on when you got your food, Mayor Bill de Blasio might have served you sweet potatoes. If you came a bit later in the afternoon, Representative Adriano Espaillat probably served you egg salad. Either way, chances were that Councilman Andy King of the Bronx served you collard greens.

For hundreds of needy New Yorkers, their Christmas Day meal was served by a rotating cast of a dozen or so politicians.

National Action Network, founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, has hosted a Christmas Day event for 22 years, and over time, it has become the go-to spot for politicians looking to serve the community and get some positive face time with the media.

“It’s become a New York City tradition,” said Mr. Espaillat, a New York Democrat who has served food at the event for more than 10 years.

Despite the emphasis on serving the needy, the day was not without politicking. Though Mr. Sharpton called for putting “aside our political differences,” he took aim at President Trump as he introduced Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, to the crowd.

“We have the most unstable president and a most stable city in the midst of instability,” Mr. Sharpton said. “Can you imagine that? I think we might need to talk again Bill, whether you ought to nationalize your ability to stabilize. People talk about there’s no momentum for de Blasio — yes, there is.”

Other politicians were later introduced before they donned their aprons and gloves to serve food. Among those in attendance were at least four of the more than 20 declared and putative candidates for New York City public advocate: Assemblyman Michael Blake, the former City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Councilman Jumaane Williams and Assemblywoman Latrice Walker.

For Mr. Sharpton, their presence only reaffirmed the success of the event.

“Politicians go where people are,” he said.


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