Pittsburgh was diverse before that term became a buzz word. Early immigrants to the city primarily came from Europe, while today’s immigrants come from all over the world, making the city a proverbial melting pot. When new arrivals settled here, they were faced with a dilemma — how to assimilate yet retain a connection to the culture they had left behind. One way to preserve their heritage was to continue Christmas and Hanukkah customs.
Unlike homogeneous societies where everyone in the country celebrates in the same way, Pittsburgh celebrates the season in as many ways it seems as we have potholes. As we explore some of the various nationalities and their traditions, it will become apparent that they are not static. Some remain the same, some have been modified, and some have been merged with other cultures. How one family celebrates may be vastly different from their next door neighbor. If you go to an Italian home on Christmas Eve expecting to feast on turkey or ham, you may be surprised to learn the house has been transformed into Red Lobster because they serve so much seafood. If you are hoping to open presents on Christmas Eve, as the Germans do, while visiting in a Greek home, you may have to wait until January 1st.
Popular Pittsburgh loves a good time and is happy to celebrate with anyone. Below are some Christmas and Hanukkah traditions that the various nationalities have brought to Pittsburgh and that have made this time of the year such a special season. See how many of these customs do you celebrate in your own home?
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the definitive primer for an English Christmas. From the English, we have acquired the custom of sending Christmas cards, Christmas caroling, and hanging stockings by the chimney for Father Christmas to fill. Dinner is usually a turkey or goose, mince pies, and the storied Christmas pudding. The English also pull Christmas “crackers” at Christmas dinner. The cracker is a colored paper wrapped tube, which is twisted on the ends. They contain a party hat, toys, or trinkets. A person gets on either end of the cracker and gives it a yank, which results in a cracking/popping sound as the tube opens and the prizes are freed. The day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day in the English Commonwealth and it is also a holiday. Its origin is believed to have come from the time when service workers and tradesmen were given gifts and the day off. Today, people visit loved ones and enjoy buffets and leftovers, many of which include a ham.
Many of our quaint, charming Christmas customs come from the Germans. Virtually, the entire month of December is a celebration for them as they kick off the festivities on December 6th, with St. Nikolaus Day. Leave your shoes out that night to have St. Nick fill them with treats. If it wouldn’t be Christmas without a tree, then thank the Germans for that. The custom dates back to the 16th Century. Prince Albert, the German husband of England’s Queen Victoria, is credited with making the Christmas tree so popular that English homes began to include them as part of their holiday celebration. In Germany, it is also popular for towns to host “Christkindl Markets,” where you can purchase ornaments and partake in German treats like stollen, Germany’s version of the fruitcake. Pittsburgh is carrying on that tradition by hosting a Christmas Market in Market Square during the run up to Christmas Day.
Most Greeks practice the Orthodox faith. While many Eastern Orthodox churches follow the Gregorian calendar, observing Christmas on January 7th, the Greek Orthodox churches in the United States observe it on December 25th. Greeks celebrate Christmas in a less commercial manner than some of their counterparts. What’s a Greek celebration without Greek pastries? Baklavas, melomakarona as well as other treats, are prepared as is the Christopsomo, which means Christ’s bread, and is a special bread that features a cross on the top. Greeks tend to eat pork on Christmas. They also sing carols and display Nativity scenes. Unlike other Europeans who celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, Greeks celebrate St. Basil the Great’s feast, on January 1st, with an exchange of presents.
Many cultures, especially those with a large Catholic population, fast on Christmas Eve. The Italians do it in style with their Feast of the Seven Fishes. Everything from squid to smelts may be on the menu, and many Italians feast on the traditional baccala, salted cod in tomato sauce. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first crèche, and Italians have embraced the tradition of setting up Nativity scenes. Many homes display presepe or Nativity scenes. Pittsburghers have embraced this practice, and one of the city’s most beloved Christmas destinations is the Pittsburgh crèche, the Nativity scene installed each holiday season on Grant Street. The life-size display is modeled after the one at the Vatican.
If you put candles in your windows, hang a holly wreath on your door, or suspend some mistletoe, you can credit the Irish for these Christmas customs. The custom of placing candles in the window symbolizes an invitation to Joseph and Mary to seek this home for shelter. Decorating with holly and mistletoe dates back to Ireland’s pagan days when Celts used those plants as they were plentiful in December and were credited with magical powers. The Irish also gave us the custom of leaving milk and cookies for Santa. After the Christmas Eve dinner, the table was set again in an Irish home with a pitcher of milk and sweet bread. The door was left unlocked so that Mary and Joseph, or any travelers, would be welcome. This “Laden Table” morphed into cookies and milk. One Irish tradition that is not so prevalent in America, but you may want to consider, is Little Women’s Christmas. Celebrated on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, women — grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, and best friends — take the day off to have a day of fun. For any woman who has shopped, wrapped, cooked, baked, and entertained for Christmas, this custom sounds like a great idea and a reward for making a wonderful holiday season.
You’ve got to love a holiday that celebrates with fried foods. Hanukkah can fall anytime from November 28th to December 26th and commemorates two miracles. The first one celebrates the victory during the second century B.C. of the Maccabees, a small army of Jews who, while greatly outnumbered, triumphed over the Greeks who were occupying the Holy Land and were trying to impose their religion on the Jews. When the Jews liberated their Temple from the occupying Greeks, the Jews tried to light the menorah, which is a seven-branched candelabra used in worship. They found only a day’s supply of oil, and it would require eight days to purify more. The second miracle occurred when what little oil they had lasted for eight days and nights of burning. Jews light a candle each night of Hanukkah and many exchange gifts. To remember the significance of the miracle of the oil, Jews celebrate with foods fried in oil. A particular favorite is latkes, or potato pancakes. It is also customary to spin the dreidel, a four-sided top on whose sides are each marked with a Hebrew letter. Winners of the spin receive gelt, gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins.
Many of the Christmas customs observed by Mexicans have come from Spain and have a European influence. For nearly two months, Mexicans celebrate with a series of minor and major holidays. Beginning with December 3rd and the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is the patron saint of Mexico, and concluding with a Candlemas celebration on February 2nd, which commemorates the presentation of the child Jesus at the temple. It’s one fiesta after another. However, the highlight of the season is Christmas. After a late night Mass on Christmas Eve, Mexicans celebrate like their Italian neighbors with a feast featuring bacalao, which is salted cod. The children play with sparklers, which are known as luce de Belen, or Bethlehem lights.
Poles on Christmas Eve observe Wigilia, or vigil, as they await the arrival of the baby Jesus. After laying a bed of straw or hay under a white table cloth, which represents the straw of the manger and Mary’s veil, the eldest woman at the celebration blesses oplatki, thin wafers similar to Communion hosts, that have Christmas scenes stamped on them. She then breaks off a piece and shares it with the rest of those gathered at the Wigilia. Also a time of fasting for Poles, the Christmas Eve dinner includes borscht with mushroom soup as well as noodles with poppyseeds and other traditional dishes. On Christmas Day, Poles break out the kielbasa and ham. Poles have their own version of the creche called szopka, decorative structures, many resembling famous cathedrals and churches in miniature form, made from lightweight material and then covered with shiny foil paper.
With all the winter holidays celebrated by the various nationalities, ethnicities, and religions in Pittsburgh, if you made a friend from each one and shared in their celebrations, you could literally party with them from late November to the beginning of February, which is one more reason to love living in Pittsburgh.