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The History of Light Up Night in Pittsburgh: Light Up Night Celebrates Its 55th Anniversary

At more than five decades old, Pittsburgh’s Light Up Night is looking more beautiful and luminous than ever. This year, Light Up Night celebrates its 55th birthday on Friday, November 20, with its customary tree-lighting ceremonies and fireworks that kick off the holiday season. Light Up Night wasn’t always held in winter in honor of the Christmas season, and technically, it isn’t really 55 years old.

They flipped the switch on the first Light Up Night on April 9, 1959, not to kick off the holiday season, but to celebrate the opening of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball season. That evening, building lights were left on until midnight to encourage shoppers to come to downtown department stores and for patrons to take in a performance at one of the city’s theaters.

Prior to 1960, there was a holiday season kickoff known as the “Preview of Christmas,” but with the success of Light Up Night in the spring for baseball, the two events were merged to become Light Up Night as we now know it. Like wrapping paper and ribbon, the two went together neatly, and the first official holiday Light Up Night was held on Monday, November 21, 1960. Precisely at 6 p.m., the lights in downtown Pittsburgh blazed and the department store windows were unveiled, showcasing their elaborate displays.

The early ’70s ushered in dark days for Light Up Night. In response to the energy crisis, they pulled the plug on Light Up Night in 1973. On November 8, 1982, the power was restored, and Light Up Night was reinstated as a means to brighten spirits dimmed by the economic downturn in the steel industry and soaring unemployment.

Since then, Light Up Night has only grown in scope and popularity. In addition to the lighting of the Horne’s Christmas tree at the corner of Penn Avenue and Stanwix Street, One Oxford Centre began hosting their own festivities which included lighting a 30-foot tree.

With even more activities being added, the Holly Trolly debuted in 1994 to shuttle visitors around to the different venues. In 1999, the magnificent Pittsburgh Crèche was unveiled at U.S. Steel Plaza. The crèche is a replica of the one on display in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, and it is the only one of its kind in the world. It is a round-the-clock display and is dedicated each year at noon on the day of Light Up Night.

Until 1998, attendance at Light Up Night was estimated at 25,000.  The year 2000 saw a record attendance at Light Up Night with 100,000 people on hand to usher in the holiday season.

In 2005, the magical Rink at PPG Place opened, and it has been charming revelers for a decade, along with the holiday displays of Santas from all over the world in PPG’s Wintergarden.

In 2009, Light Up Night hosted its first Bridge Party on the Roberto Clemente bridge featuring stage performances, food vendors, and children’s activities, not to mention a spectacular fireworks display.

For most Pittsburghers, Light Up Night has become an indispensable part of the holiday season, and with more and more people attending each year, it seems that Light Up Night will continue to be an essential event for ensuring a holiday season that is merry and bright.

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