Holidays in the ‘Burgh

8 Pittsburgh holiday traditions you’ve always wondered about, finally explained

Why this time of year is filled with fish, trees (real and animated), and an NYE ball that goes up.

Santa Claus is coming to 'tahn.

Santa Claus is coming to 'tahn.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

‘Tis the season. The holidays in Pittsburgh are in full swing — the ice rink at PPG Place is open, Light Up Night has come and gone, and the city is full of holiday decorations.

It’s a time of year that’s filled with annual traditions. But have you ever wondered about why some Pittsburgh holiday traditions exist? We dove into our archives to find explanations for eight popular local traditions.

If you still have questions about a local tradition we didn’t include, let us know here, and we’ll find the answers.

Comcast Light Up Night 2016

Comcast Light Up Night 2016

courtesy of Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership

Christmas before Thanksgiving at Light Up Night

Light Up Night has long been a November tradition to kick off the holiday shopping season. But it actually started as a way to celebrate the Pirates, and the first one was in April 1959.

But in 1960, it became the holiday tradition we know.

Light Up Night went on hiatus starting in 1973 to conserve energy and returned in 1982 in an attempt to raise morale during the steel industry collapse, per the Downtown Partnership.

Read more.

A tree lighting to start the season

This tree isn’t one you can go visit, but rather it visits you — through the Eat’n Park Christmas star commercial.

Started more than 35 years ago as a “a holiday card on video to thank the city of Pittsburgh for their support of Eat’n Park,” watching the commercial remains a popular tradition.

Typically airing for the first time during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade broadcast, it’s a sure sign of the holidays.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

Remember when it was ‘Sparkle season?’

From 1994 to 2002, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership used the holiday theme “sparkle season.” And it didn’t go well.

See the Urban Dictionary definition from 2003:

Pittsburgh PA’s way of denouncing Christ’s birth and Christmas, in the name of political correctness. Proof that city officials have their heads up their asses!

It’s CHRISTMAS, NOT sparkle season!

Pittsburgh’s city officials didn’t like Jesus so they changed the name of his birthday from Christmas to “sparkle season”. God got so pissed when they did this, he ordered thousands of it’s citizens to leave the town… that they did! God then changed the name of Pittsburgh, to Pitsburgh, because he thought the town was the pits!

Read more.

Here were some creepy mice (from "The Nutcracker") at last year's Christmas tree lighting at the City-County Building.

Here were some creepy mice (from "The Nutcracker") at last year's Christmas tree lighting at the City-County Building.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

The giving (Christmas) tree

It’s a city tradition to rely on residents to provide the Christmas tree that goes on display on the City-County Building portico.

The search process for a massive Douglas fir — or related evergreen species — starts in late summer with a call for donations. Typically, the city will get between five to seven calls each year. Trees are judged for their quality and also how easy they will be to transport Downtown. The winning tree is cut the morning of installation.

This year’s tree was donated by the Jurecko family in Polish Hill and is filled in with branches from a tree donated by the Orban family in Morningside, TribLive reported. The 2017 tree came from John Zitelli in Regent Square.

Read more.

The Pittsburgh Crèche at the US Steel Tower Plaza on Grant Street.

The Pittsburgh Crèche at the US Steel Tower Plaza on Grant Street.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

The only legit replica of the Vatican’s Nativity

The Pittsburgh Crèche is the only “authorized replica” of the Vatican’s Nativity scene in the world, according to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.  The massive nativity scene sits on the privately owned U.S. Steel Tower plaza and has been there since 1999 following a tussle about Nativity scene displays in Pittsburgh.

In 1986, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Greater Pittsburgh Chapter sued Allegheny County over two displays: a Nativity scene inside the county courthouse and menorah, paired with a Christmas tree, outside the City-County building. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in 1986 and ruled in favor of the ACLU regarding the Nativity scene but against the ACLU regarding the menorah.

Then, in 1996, local Christian church leaders decided to build a Nativity scene on city-owned land in Gateway Center. It stayed there for three Christmases before it was replaced with the privately-funded Crèche that exists today.

Read more.

At left, dishes from the Feast of the Seven Fishes. At right, the Argentine family, of Pittsburgh's South Hills, celebrating the meal in 1969.

At left, dishes from the Feast of the Seven Fishes. At right, the Argentine family, of Pittsburgh's South Hills, celebrating the meal in 1969.

GW Fins / Flickr | Courtesy of Heinz History Center

Seven fishes for Christmas Eve

A tradition for more than a century, this meal includes seven varieties of fish to be eaten with the family before going to midnight mass. The tradition was brought to Pittsburgh by Italian immigrants, who continue it here even those in Italy stopped.

The feast is designed to bring the whole family together and while the types of fish can vary, baccala, smelts, calamari and a smattering of eel, clams, mussels, salmon or tuna are typically included.

Read more.

The Future of Pittsburgh ball.

The Future of Pittsburgh ball.

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

A New Year’s Eve ball that rises

In Times Square, a packed crowd counts down the seconds for the New Year’s Eve ball drop at midnight.

But in Pittsburgh, the New Year’s Eve ball goes up.

It’s called “The Future of Pittsburgh” and it channels the same “energy and enthusiasm of New York City’s Times Square.” The ball debuted as the calendar changed from 2006 to 2007. It’s environmentally-friendly and shows that Pittsburgh is a city on the rise.

Read more.


A New Year’s Day meal

The tradition of eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day to ensure good luck in the coming year is a German custom that was brought over by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Pork is good luck because a pig roots forward and its snout symbolizes progress, or so the folk saying goes. Sauerkraut on New Year’s = a sweet year and the long strands symbolize a long life to be lived, while the green color equals money.

Read more.

What have you always wondered about holiday traditions in Pittsburgh and our region?

Want some more? Explore other Holidays in the ‘Burgh stories.

We love you, Pittsburgh.

Looks like you’re the type of person who reads to the end of articles.

Because you love learning about Pittsburgh, you need our free morning newsletter, full of useful news, can’t-miss events, and everything else you need to know about our city.

There's no journalism without u.

Reporting and writing stories like this require time — and money. When readers like you become members, it ensures that we’ll be able to keep bringing you the news. Will you join us today?

It feels like we know each other.

It’s nice seeing you here, because we can’t do this without you.

Make our relevant, original, and actionable journalism possible by contributing now.

Let’s make it official.

Your support allows us to do great work like the article you just read, and we can’t do it without you.

Will you become a member today to help us for the long haul?

You’re the best.

Members often ask us how they can go the extra mile to help us. Your financial support makes this possible. Bringing your friends makes it fun.

Get your loved ones to sign up for our daily newsletter today.