Pitt's Nationality Rooms Get Dressed Up For The Holidays

Nov 15, 2017

Holiday traditions from around the globe converge at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning inside its Nationality Rooms, a collection of 30 classrooms representing the cultures of various groups that settled in Allegheny County. 

90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young visited on decorating day, when rooms are adorned with traditional decor. The rooms will be open most days through Jan. 13, 2018, and a free open house with costumed guides and performances is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 3. 

Secretary of the Austrian room committee Joanne Weiss untangled boxes of new faux greenery along a lush red wall. 

“There’s a lot of musical instruments on these garlands, and of course Austria is a completely musical country,” she said, pointing to a list of Austrian composers painted on one wall.

The other focus of this room is a crèche, she said, or traditional manger scene. 

“Being a highly Catholic country, their focus is going to midnight mass, and it’s usually in the snow, so it’s beautiful in Austria,” Weiss said.

Traditional Hungarian tree decorations include vibrant, hand embroidered ornaments.
Credit Sarah Schneider

Nearby in the Hungarian room, Kathy Novak sifted through red and green crates, unpacking delicate decorations.

“It’s not part of the nativity, but in Hungary, they usually have a cradle out with a baby doll in it to represent the birth of Christ,” she said.

Novak, of Youngstown, Ohio, is vice president of the Hungarian room committee. She said both her parents are full-blooded Hungarian, and the traditions have been passed down.

“Since Hungary was always a poor country, they just used whatever they had to decorate their tree, so it was things from their yard, the walnut tree, candles, fresh fruit and then any handmade embroidered ornaments that the women would make in the different counties,” she said.

The Welsh room is a replica of a minimalist 17th century chapel.

“Very simple,” said Dale Richards, the room's co-chair. “Back then, when they had the chapels, they did not decorate other than holly, ivy and candles.”

The Welsh room is minimally decorated with sprigs of faux greens to represent the conservative history of the Welsh Nonconformist church.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

It was a “conservative church that came along after the reformation, and there were other Nonconformist churches in Great Britain as well," said Reverend Bob Dayton. "The Nonconformists would have no representations in the churches at all, not even a cross [and] no stained glass windows.

“Some of them didn’t even recognize Christmas, didn’t recognize any holidays," he said. "There were 52 Sabbaths. That was enough.”

More than a dozen volunteers bustled in the nearby German room working together to assemble an artificial Christmas tree.

“How many Germans does it take to decorate a tree?” joked Darlene Lucas. The scene was not a far departure from the contemporary family experience of searching for an electrical outlet and untangling strands of tangled lights.

German room committee member Elizabeth Jaskot untangles lights which represent traditional candle decorations.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

“We decorate in the German style tradition with all the evergreens and pines,” said Chairman Bela Pater.

His grandparents came from Germany and Hungary to Pittsburgh, he said, “and of course [we decorate] with candles. Now they’re electric candles instead of the real ones on the Christmas tree."

Much about American culture was born from hundreds of years of German influence, Pater said, noting an advent wreath on a nearby wall.

It's similar to that of many Christian churches, he said, Catholics and Lutherans, which used the decoration to count the four weeks of advent leading up to Christmas.

Find more at the Nationality Rooms at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning here.