For first Christmas away from family, Chinese buffet offers welcome change
FARGO - All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth. And there's no place like home for the holidays, so I'd also like to be home. Definitely a '54 convertible, too, light blue.
It's perhaps the most traditional holiday in America, yet we're bombarded with conflicting messages over just what we're supposed to want - or even do - each Dec. 25.
So as the holiday approached last year, and I was preparing for a first Christmas away from my parents and relatives, I had to find my own way of honoring the most wonderful time of the year to make up for missing my family's traditions.
For me, the answer was as simple as borrowing from a nontraditional holiday tradition. A heaping plate of fried rice, sweet-and-sour chicken and, of course, a couple fortune cookies was my way of staying festive during a potentially lonely Christmas - and bypassing the unspoken pressure to conform with everyone else during this season.
As I ate entirely too much food at King House Buffet that afternoon, taking short breaks from stuffing my face so I could enjoy a casual conversation with my partner and two of our friends, I felt connected to others who shared my holiday plight.
Karen Kohoutek has taken her family to King House each Christmas Day for the past six or seven years, and chances are good that she'll be there this year, too.
The annual meal reminds her of "A Christmas Story," the modern-day classic 1983 movie that ends with Ralphie and family dining at a Chinese restaurant after a holiday meal disaster at home. Instead of letting it ruin their day, the Parkers spend their holiday enjoying a meal of duck and singing carols with their new Chinese acquaintances.
Kohoutek's yuletide tradition didn't originate from a culinary disaster - it's more a matter of practicality, considering she and her parents live in apartments lacking the large kitchens needed to make a picture-perfect holiday meal at home.
"The reason we picked a Chinese buffet in the first place was because just like in 'A Christmas Story,' it was the only place that was already open," she said. "Then it sort of became a tradition in and of itself."
Nothing was further from my mind than "A Christmas Story" during my first Christmas Chinese buffet experience. While I have made repeated attempts to watch the movie, I'll be honest: I hate it.
It's a confession I rarely make because I'm met with stunned silence, critical glares or a litany of incredulous questions when I admit my true feelings toward a film that everyone else seemingly regards as the greatest Christmas movie ever.
But that only goes to show how people can get carried away trying to honor traditions during this time of year. It seems like the entire country reverts to a middle school mentality as Christmas gets closer, and eventually, we're told which holiday traditions we're supposed to honor - and which movies we're supposed to watch over and over again, no matter how boring we personally find them.
In its own way, a meal at a Chinese buffet, complete with a koi pond in the front lobby and paper lanterns and fans that cover most walls, was the one idea I had to distance myself from that holiday herd mentality.
For my first holiday without family, it was important to do something different. The easiest way I could do that was to head to the movie theater for an early screening of "Les Miserables" before loading up on delicious wontons and sesame chicken.
I obviously can't claim credit for being the first to suggest having a Christmas Day meal at a Chinese buffet, and neither can "A Christmas Story."
The origins of this tradition date back to the early 1900s among the growing Jewish population in New York City at the time, according to "A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish" author Joshua Eli Plaut.
They found the increasing number of restaurants there opened up by Chinese immigrants offered plenty of kosher foods - though pork and shellfish dishes broke those rules - and became an increasingly important customer base for the eateries.
Two groups of people bonded over these meals, and it wasn't long until that morphed into an annual tradition each Dec. 25. While much of the city shut down for Christmas, Jewish residents could still enjoy a dinner out of the house at Chinese restaurants, where the owners were also left out of the Christian holiday.
In a way, it was a historical example of two groups who felt excluded from the majority making their own social norms and traditions, regardless of being excluded from the holiday events that seemed to get all the attention.
My first Chinese buffet Christmas was my way to connect with others - the historical residents of New York City, and the modern-day residents of Fargo-Moorhead who were also keeping King House busy that day.
I've had my share of orange chicken and black tea. But they never tasted better than in the company of fellow Christmas orphans, those people who had to find their own way to celebrate and put the idealism of "A Christmas Story" and all that other cultural pressure behind.
A holiday that could've been one long, lonely day away from family instead became the start of a new tradition that I can look forward to each year.
I don't care if I get a Red Ryder B.B. gun this Christmas, or if I live up to the impossibly traditional holiday season that everyone talks about. I'd rather enjoy fried rice and quality time with loved ones on my own terms.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587