Melted popcorn decorations. Oranges in stockings. The Christmas Pickle.
If these sound like Mad Lib entries instead of venerable Christmas traditions, let us start by welcoming you to Pittsburgh, the land where the holidays remain a charming mix of Wes Anderson kitsch and imported European dogma.
But what’s behind these customs? And what even is a truly Pittsburgh holiday pastime?
Melted plastic popcorn decorations
“My wife still uses the melted plastic popcorn decorations from our parents that have gone from tacky to trendy,” said Brian Butko, director of publications at the Heinz History Center and editor of Western Pennsylvania History magazine.
He’s talking about these, and if you recognize them you probably have spent a holiday in a Pittsburgh-area home at least once.
As for Butko’s “tacky to trendy” claim, it might be backed up by the $50 price tag on this one.
They’re made of melted plastic chips — polyethylene to be exact — and only resemble actual popcorn. The retroplanet.com blog says the decorations were created by the founder of The Kage Company in Manchester, Conn., whose daughter had come across a box of colorful plastic chips left for her father by a salesman and who assembled the colorful pieces into the shape of a small chicken. “Her father placed her creation on a cookie sheet and baked it. He liked it enough to take it into W.T. Grant Co. execs in NYC who promptly ordered 25,000 of them.”
And a holiday classic was born.
Just look at it this way, if nothing else these vintage ornaments provide ample opportunity for elders and youth to bond over how old things inevitably become cool again. We’re sure grandma has that Perry Como album on vinyl, too. Discuss.
Find the Christmas Pickle
This one hails from Germany, a significant source of Pittsburgh immigration in the 19th Century.
Today, the keeping of this custom usually involves a parent hiding a pickle ornament deep in the boughs of a Christmas Tree, per Wendell August, a maker of such ornaments.
It’s to be hung last on the tree, on Christmas Eve, just before midnight. In the morning, the first adult who finds the pickle gets a year of good luck. The first child who finds the pickle gets an extra gift from St. Nick. (Variations include this child getting the first gift of Christmas.)
But even with Pittsburgh’s immigrant derived traditions, there’s always been — and still is — a push and pull between the old ways and the new, as Butko explains.
“I grew up in West Mifflin (born 1964) and still live there. […] My family didn’t have many traditions overall, as my mom would say, with her parents immigrants from Russia and Slovakia who carried on all their Old World traditions. So by time she was an adult in the 1950s and ’60s, her and her friends wanted modern conveniences.
“I guess we fit the postwar image of Christmas in that we had a circa 1960 cardboard fireplace — I still do, with the box attached — hung with stockings having stickers — that I also still have — that were otherwise put on presents. Sometimes we’d get a live tree but we also had a small artificial tree decorated with my grandparents’ glass-blown ornaments. My grade school had a silver tree and color wheel, which seemed wrong, but I still loved it and wanted one, too.”
Meanwhile, families like Butko’s were also creating new traditions, sometimes without even realizing it.
“We’d go to Midnight Mass, sometimes stopping at the suburban Sears store across from Allegheny County Airport for presents (seemed normal at the time to wait till then). We liked driving home and seeing lights still on.
“I carry on the tradition of still using big C7 colored bulbs on the house and plastic candles — with orange bulbs — in the windows. The big incandescent bulbs have become especially rare to see. At my parent’s house, we’d always put a blinking red bulb at the roof peak for Santa. Yeah, I still have that too, and everyone still asks why we have one blinking bulb.”
Another German import, Christkindlmarkts literally translates to “Christmas Markets.” And they still exist here.
The Peoples Gas Holiday Market in Market Square is a prime example.
According to Peoples Gas, the market was “inspired by the original German Christkindlmarkts” and “brings a cherished European tradition to Pittsburgh with an international flair, a touch of local charm, and a pinch of sugar, spice, and everything nice.”
The market runs through Saturday.
Oranges in stockings
This isn’t specific to Pittsburgh, as much as it is to an age group: Depression-era revelers — as oxymoronic as that may sound. During the financial collapse of the 1930s, money was tight, obviously, and so many families didn’t have the means to buy gifts. Instead, it was a treat to find relatively lush offerings like sweet oranges and walnuts in your stocking.
Others theorize that the orange segments represent the ability to share what you have with others or that the oranges themselves represent the gold gifted by St. Nicholas to the poor. Whatever the answer, it’s cold and flu season, and so a little Vitamin C seems like a good idea. Some things never go out of style.
Cabbage, jello molds and sauerkraut
And now for the food.
“My wife’s parents were English and Mexican but, being in McKeesport, seemed to carry on many of the Eastern European traditions, like still having stuffed cabbage at Christmas and Easter,” Butko said.
In Pittsburgh’s melting pot, this sort of cross-pollination was far from unusual.
“So I guess that’s an example of the regional blending of traditions,” Butko added. “I guess this is also an example of how traditions quickly fade with each generation (though my brother and wife had both learned accordion when young, I guess also a reflection of the music that was more common around us growing up.)”
Imported from Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes lives on in Pittsburgh even after falling out of fashion in the Old Country. For the unfamiliar, it’s exactly as it sounds — a hearty meal consisting of seven varieties of fish served the night before Christmas, enjoyed with the whole family around the table before heading to midnight mass.
That it remains a living tradition here should come as no surprise. Pittsburgh is in the top five cities with the most Italian Americans, per the National Italian American Foundation.
Another thing that might make its way onto your holiday table: A jello mold! Again, not specific to Pittsburgh but certainly a cultural phenomenon here. We can’t even picture a holiday without one.
It also turns out that if you’re in Pittsburgh on Dec. 25, you’re likely eating ham for dinner. And for dessert, you’re likely having Sfogliatelle. Then, on New Year’s Day, you must eat pork and sauerkraut or suffer the consequences.
And if you hear gong banging the night before, fear not. It’s just another zany Pittsburgh tradition.
What would the holidays be without ’em?