Celebrating a secular Christmas? What to do in 6 cities from NY to LA.


Christmas can be a tedious day in America if you’re not a Christian, but without an obligation to work or celebrate, there’s also an opportunity to make up your own holiday.

If you don’t participate, you’ve likely built your own familiar game plan, whether you go full Klaus-core with a mission to see the brightest lights or find your solace in a bowl of hot and sour soup. Depending on the size and demographics of your town, it can be tough to find a place to go. Yet there’s a fellowship to be found in exclusion, as evidenced by the well-documented symbiosis between Jewish and Chinese communities in America, and the businesses that open their doors build a special bond with their Christmas Day customers.

In the spirit of serving readers who may be looking to start new traditions this year, we asked writers in six major cities to share their best recommendations for a secular Christmas, including restaurants that are open on the holiday, movie theaters with local character and opportunities for sightseeing with a fraction of the regular crowds.

Over the decade I’ve lived in the D.C. area, my spouse and I have combined our traditions: my family’s penchant for ordering enough Chinese food to feed a Maccabee army, and her side’s insistence on heading to the movies. I have a soft spot for New Big Wong, where I mix standards from my family’s standing takeout order with specials of the house like the dry scallop fried rice. For something a little more contemporary, you could try one of the hottest new dining attractions in town, Chang Chang in Dupont Circle. If you want to brave the winter weather, I recommend picking up some wheels from the Capital Bikeshare and pedaling the path by the pond in Constitution Gardens all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.

I grew up in San Francisco’s Chinese American community, where almost every Sunday — and traditionally on Christmas Day — it was a special treat to go out for dim sum with my family. Nowadays in New York, my German-born husband and I continue the tradition, often going to Chinatown on Christmas Day for a secular celebration with friends who depend on me to guide them through the world of dim sum. I like to go to Jing Fong, where traditional dishes are served old-style from carts pushed by female servers in brightly colored Chinese tops. Jing Fong is known for the classics: siu mai (pork dumpling); har gow (shrimp dumpling); and char siu bao (BBQ pork buns). At Dim Sum Go Go, a more modern establishment, I adore their signature roast duck dumplings and mango shrimp rolls served with yummy house XO sauce and other condiments. Be sure to also stop in at Ting’s, a tiny emporium founded in 1957. One of the city’s most fascinating gift stores, Ting’s is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., selling everything from vintage children’s silk embroidered slippers to paper dragons and hand-painted snuff bottles. It’s like stepping back in time.

Chicago’s Chinatown is always bustling on Christmas Day. Try MCCB (Modern Chinese Cook Book) for Sichuan specialties like mapo tofu or a whole grilled fish prepared one of four ways (garlic, numb spicy, Chinese sour pickle or Malaysian satay). Ken Kee excels at soul-warming Hong Kong-style cart noodles and congee. The Beijing Duck feast at Sun Wah BBQ in Uptown is an ambitious undertaking, but a must if you’ve got a few friends. The crispy-skinned bird is carved tableside with steamed gua bao, garnishes and a thick, sweet house-blended hoisin. For Kosher comfort food, head to Lakeview and Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed. The 16-hour smoked brisket is the star; you can get it chopped and piled high on a pretzel bun, mixed into a burger patty or paired with caramelized onions in an empanada. If you want to see a movie, the iconic Music Box Theatre on Southport Avenue gives old Hollywood drama with its towering welcome sign, ornate decor and heavy red curtain. Lincoln Park Conservatory is a good place to warm up in the greenhouses and take in the beauty of “Sugar Plum,” their annual winter flower show. In addition to the vibrant installations inspired by the “Nutcracker,” you can explore the lush greenery of the Palm, Fern and Orchid Rooms, and forget for a second that you’re in the middle of a Midwest winter.

When I was growing up in Houston, eating hot pot was a way to celebrate on Christmas. These days it can be easier to go out to Chinatown, also known as Asiatown in Houston, to eat either hot pot, dim sum or your pick of Vietnamese and Korean. My favorite restaurant is FuFu Cafe in Chinatown because they make these incredible, savory soup dumplings known as xiao long bao. Eating them in a deep soup spoon is the best way to make sure you don’t let any of the broth from the pork dumpling go to waste. If you like the pageantry of Christmas decorations, check out the River Oaks or Tanglewood neighborhoods. Expect a long line of cars to view the large homes and yards with elaborate Texas-sized setups and sparkling lights. Bring a carafe of hot chocolate or hot tea such as oolong from a Chinese restaurant, and buy a box of chocolates to make the viewing more decadent. You can head to Rice University and catch “Twilight Epiphany,” the James Turrell Skyspace at the Suzanne Deal Booth Centennial Pavilion, a light-filled architectural space that’s an iconic piece of public artwork.

Growing up Muslim, I spent most of my holidays covering for colleagues and trying to find one of the few open restaurants around Seattle. For me, it was a time with little fanfare. Now that I’m with my fiancee, I celebrate with her family by wearing matching pajamas, participating in a white elephant gift exchange, and curating our wish lists. But I know what it’s like to have to create your own tradition. If you’re in the mood for Indian food, Roti Cuisine of India in Queen Anne serves generous portions fit for a family-style meal. The garlic naan and vegetable samosas are a necessary addition to any meal. A longtime late-night favorite for comfort food, 13 Coins is known for its steaks, finished with a demi-glace and “steak butter,” but they also have pasta, salmon, chicken and a number of breakfast classics. Majestic Bay Theatres is a neighborhood spot in Ballard with lots of history and a nautical motif in the form of jellyfish chandeliers, posters and a marine steering wheel affixed to the wall. Pike Place Market is only closed two days a year, Christmas being one of them. Feel free to roam the grounds of the Seattle Center, where you’ll see the attractions and the fountain lights up for WinterFest at night.

Christmas week in Los Angeles is actually one of the best times to be in the city. Traffic hits something that resembles a lull and the always-mild Southland weather encourages beach visits and morning hikes in the hazy Santa Monica Mountains. If you know where to go, you can make the day special, from having dinner in the neon-lit panorama of Koreatown to a 1970s-style roller rink that keeps the music pumping. For a spontaneous meal, crawl the thumping Chapman Market complex, a restaurant and retail plaza home to restaurants like Korean pocha-style pub Toe Bang, which serves bubbling cauldrons of Korean army stew and crackly fried chicken wings with a stained-glass glaze. Or you could head to the condensed, string-light-lit strip of East African restaurants and businesses that comprise Little Ethiopia on Fairfax. On Dec. 25, restaurants like Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine and Messob are all open for feather-light injera and deeply spiced stews good for dining alone or with a small group. The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures stays open on Christmas, too. “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898–1971” is an exhibition through seven galleries that’s worth spending time with. At night, skip the holiday lines at Universal Hollywood and Disneyland (both are open on Christmas Day, though, and a solid option for families) and go for an evening skate at Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale. The rink will have afternoon and nighttime all-ages skates on Christmas under kaleidoscopic strobe lights; blue raspberry or cherry slushies from the snack bar will only heighten the experience.



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