Chinese Food on Christmas: An American Tradition

It may not appear in Christmas movies as often as mistletoe, toy-stuffed stockings, and seasonal sweaters, but Chinese food is as much a hallmark of Christmas as any of them.

Christmas is by far the biggest day in the U.S. for Chinese food on Yelp. And the phenomenon is national: In all but three states, the biggest day on Yelp for Chinese food in 2017 was Christmas. The average state saw Chinese food’s share of all interest in food and restaurant categories elevated on Christmas to nearly three times the typical level throughout the year.

It’s rare that we see such a strong finding: elevated relative interest in one category on one day throughout the country, and of such magnitude. Yelp users, in aggregate, like to eat everything, all the time, and they use our product to find it. While most people using Yelp to find restaurants on Christmas end up looking at cuisines other than Chinese food, there are enough people hunting for Christmas slippery shrimp and yuletide BBQ pork buns to leave a major impression in the data.

We wondered if this was simply the result of availability: Were hungry Americans using Yelp to find restaurants open on Christmas, and finding that Chinese restaurants made up a greater share of open restaurants than usual? The short answer is no. On Christmas, more of the Yelp users who viewed Chinese restaurant pages came to Yelp specifically seeking out Chinese food.

We’d been loosely aware of this phenomenon, among other calendar peaks such as those for Irish pubs on Saint Patrick’s Day and Mexican restaurants on Cinco de Mayo. While digging deeper to better understand the seasonal popularity of Chinese food, we also found smaller peaks on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day.

What got us to dig deeper was a smart query on the topic sent to us by CityLab reporter Claire Tran, whose article “The Data Doesn’t Lie: Chinese Food Really Is a Christmas Tradition” appeared today.

There’s plenty of anecdata to corroborate our data. Eating Chinese food is a longstanding Christmas ritual for many American Jews, from Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan to, well, me. (Kosher delis also get a lift on Christmas, with 2017 Christmas Day share of restaurant and food interest about 60% higher than average levels.) Less chronicled but no less significant is the popularity of Chinese food on Christmas among many non-Christian people, including Americans of Chinese descent.

What’s striking is just how universal the ritual has become: Many of the states where levels of relative interest in Chinese food were highest last year on Christmas were in the most Christian regions of the country, perhaps in part because Chinese restaurants there represent a disproportionately large share of eateries open on Christmas. (Nationwide, half of Chinese restaurants that mark special Christmas hours on Yelp list themselves as open, compared to just one-third of other food and restaurant businesses.) Christmas also was tops for Chinese food in cities across the country, including Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Denver, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Saying Christmas is the biggest day of the year for Chinese food isn’t the same as saying it’s the day when Chinese restaurants get the most page views; just the day when they get the most page views relative to similar categories. Page-view share is a reliable measure for identifying the categories that grab the biggest share of Yelp users’ attention at any given time.

What else do Yelp users look for on Christmas, when they’re not taking a break from devices, or searching for soup dumplings?

To find out, we looked for other categories that both:

  • Had their biggest day of the year on Christmas each year from 2012 to 2017 — to avoid selecting categories that only peak on Christmas occasionally.
  • Had a share of all page views in related categories that was above a minimum threshold — to select major categories with broad appeal.

We found that several other Asian cuisines are popular on Christmas: Indian, Korean, and Asian fusion. Noodles — a category often applied to Asian restaurants — and buffets also are Christmas staples. Christmas hits outside of food include movie theaters, the well-known partner to Chinese restaurants on Christmas; and businesses reliably open for shopping needs for last-minute essentials, when few other establishments are serving customers: gas stations, pharmacies, and drugstores.

To measure daily interest in Chinese food, we’re primarily using a measure that also featured in our recent coverage of the rising popularity of boba and poke: mouth share. It’s the share of page views in the food and restaurant categories that go to a specific category: in this case, Chinese. Many food and restaurant businesses belong to more than one category — for instance, dim sum places are also categorized as Chinese food — and we split the page views for multiple-category food businesses among their cuisines, to avoid double-counting. We also apply the same methodology to other categories — for example, page views of movie theaters as a share of all arts categories — where the “mouth” in “mouth share” is more metaphorical.

We like mouth share because it accounts for ebbs and flows in Yelp usage. For instance, we expect dips on holidays, when more people put down their phone, eat in dining rooms that don’t have Yelp pages, and don’t bother requesting quotes for a plumbing job because plumbers are taking a break, too.

Graphics by The DataFace.