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    To many, Christmas is all about a day off

    Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
    David Thin Wong, owner of Empire Garden Restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown, surveyed the dining room. The restaurant is popular with non-Christians on Christmas Day.

    Under the soaring gilt-and-muraled ceiling of Empire Garden Restaurant, the only sign of Christmas yesterday amid the dim sum carts was the tiny Santa pattern embroidered on owner David Thin Wong’s tie.

    Well, that and the scattered Jewish families around the bustling 750-seat dining room, nearly all on their way to or from the same place.

    “It’s Jewish Christmas: Chinese food and movies,’’ said Mark Bonin, a 47-year-old teacher from Cambridge, exiting the Chinatown restaurant.

    That was a popular option yesterday, as it is every year, for those who do not celebrate Christmas - or who celebrate it on another day, as does Bonin’s friend, Jon Argenziano, the only non-Jew in their group of 10.

    Argenziano’s extended family in Salem defers its Christmas until his uncle, a priest in Pennsylvania coal country, arrives.

    “He was in Hartford for a while, so we could have Christmas on Christmas, but now it takes him too long to drive after all the Masses,’’ said Argenziano, a 45-year-old lawyer visiting from Los Angeles.

    So Chinese food has become his Christmas tradition, too.

    For Amy Ao, sharing spare ribs and chicken feet with college friend Sylvia Li, yesterday was a day for traveling and seeing friends - a quiet lull before today’s post-Christmas shopping sprees.

    “We’ll just wander around,’’ said Ao, 23, who finished a dual degree in music and international relations at Mount Holyoke College earlier this month.

    Of course, the non-Christian Christmas takes many forms beyond Chinese food and movies.

    In Brighton, Rani Khalid, co-owner of the Pakistani restaurant Darbar, paused between the lunch rush and preparations for the dinner crowd - serving a clientele happy to be free from work, Christmas or otherwise.

    “Pakistani people, they come when they have a day off,’’ said Khalid, who opened the Halal restaurant with her husband, Irfan, a year and a half ago. “So we’re [always] busy on the weekends, but I think we did get more customers [today] than we would have because more people were off.’’

    Not that the Khalids have ever had a free Christmas Day. They started the restaurant after selling a convenience store in Quincy that was open every holiday.

    In that city yesterday, on a quiet side street near the Southern Artery, the aromatic smoke of burning incense and cedar rose from the open door of the Thousand Buddha Temple.

    As it does every Sunday, the temple drew a mix of regular and occasional worshipers, chanting together from “The Dharma Flower Sutra’’ in a medley of languages, mostly Cantonese and Mandarin.

    Charlie Chau, 62, a Cambodian refugee who had learned of the temple over the Internet, drove from Medford; most years he spends Christmas enjoying the company of family, thankful to have a day off from work at Costco.

    Ellen Tang has visited the temple every seven days since her father’s death in November, for a seven-week cycle of mourning.

    “The prayer is, in a way, well wishes for him. You’re creating good karma for him to go up to heaven,’’ said Tang, taking a break from praying toward an altar adorned with fresh fruit and statues of the Buddha, led by the Rev. Sik Kuan Yen and a roundtable of robed disciples.

    Tang, 29, who works at Harvard Law School, had spent most Christmases at home in Quincy, exchanging gifts before a Christmas tree, incense burning. But she wanted to honor the memory of her father, who emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1970s, so she returned to the temple yesterday.

    “Christmas just happened to fall on the 35th day of my dad’s death, so that’s why I’m here.’’

    Back in Boston, Jews as well as non-Jews beat a path between Chinatown and the AMC Loews Boston Common.

    “This time of year it’s always packed,’’ said Marc Seigle of West Roxbury, approaching the theater as he does every year, with wife, Pamela, and daughter, Annie. The meal, at Gourmet Dumpling House, was predetermined; the movie was not.

    “Right now we’re seeing ‘War Horse,’ but we usually change our mind in line,’’ said Annie, 31.

    Around the corner at St. Francis House, New England’s largest day shelter, volunteers in hair nets and gloves served hundreds of meals, the need on Christmas as great as any other day.

    Andrew Grusby, a senior at Newton South High School and self-described agnostic, said volunteering lent meaning to a holiday that had been fading out in his household.

    “We went from real tree to fake tree to no tree,’’ said Grusby, who has Christian and Jewish roots. “This is a really nice way to spend Christmas. You see real, true happiness on people’s faces when they get a real gift.’’

    Grusby found out about St. Francis through his father and stepmother, experienced volunteers.

    Rachel Goldfarb, a first-timer, learned about it through the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston’s ReachOut! program for 20-somethings, which combined a day of service across the region with a party for the sixth night of Hanukkah.

    “What else am I going to do today? There are people who can’t volunteer because they’re with their families, because it’s their religious holiday. The least I can do is help,’’ said Goldfarb, 22, a Washington-area native who stayed in Boston after graduating from Brandeis last spring. “It’s not like we can go shopping or do anything other than go to the movies. And I’m still doing that today.’’

    Eric Moskowitz can be reached at