City basks in Christmas traditions, memories
By Salena Zito
Published: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The Christmas tree at Point State Park, the Pittsburgh Creche in the U.S. Steel Plaza, the decorated windows at Macy's department store and the festive Nationality Rooms in the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning — these and more draw Pittsburghers and out-of-town visitors at Christmastime.
Some offer holiday traditions that replaced or continued those of old. They're complemented by other traditions: midnight Mass or church services, Christmas plays by schoolchildren, shopping Downtown or in the Strip District, where specialty foods help families carry on ethnic observances.
Pittsburgh is at its best this time of year for those who love the city, some might argue.
“There are no three better words to say than ‘Christmas in Pittsburgh,' ” says David McCullough, 80, the historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who grew up in Point Breeze in a home his parents built on Glen Arden Drive.
Christmas, he said, was when “I learned my love affair with books.”
To keep their four boys upstairs while they readied things, his parents wrapped books to place at the foot of their beds.
“I would spend an hour poring over the book until everyone was ready to go downstairs to see if Santa came,” McCullough said.
His favorite, “Ben and Me,” told the tale of a mouse, Amos, that lived under Ben Franklin's hat. “It was my first encounter with a revisionist historian,” he joked.
Then neighbors and an eccentric relative or two would bring hilarious tales to entertain during the afternoon Christmas dinner.
Like many people who grew up in and around Western Pennsylvania, McCullough, who lives in Boston, kept the traditions he learned: “My kids all received books from Santa on Christmas morning at the foot of their beds growing up, and Christmas dinner is 3 p.m. sharp.”
Connecting with history
Christmas traditions can transcend cultures and the test of time in Pittsburgh, where distinctive neighborhoods developed as ethnic groups settled.
The Scots-Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Eastern Europeans and black Americans developed yuletide experiences tied to family or old-country customs, church services or neighborhood events, said Andy Masich, director of the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. Although some are gone, many of those practices continue.
People connect with “the way things used to be” by re-creating events they loved as children, Masich said.
Though a history buff, Masich is a relative newcomer in Pittsburgher terms — he arrived here 16 years ago. His family visited The Point to see the Christmas tree, and he likes the newer traditions of Light Up Night, which kicks off the season in November, ice skating at PPG Place, and the larger-than-life creche on Grant Street, which debuted in 1999 as a replica of the St. Peter's Square display at the Vatican.
“Thirty years from now, if any of those things are gone, we would feel that sentimental tug and yearning for the happiness felt in those places,” Masich said.
Many Pittsburghers — and people throughout the region and neighboring Ohio and West Virginia — recall visiting Downtown to view the lavish displays department stores set up to make Christmas shopping more fun: the six-story Joseph Horne Co. Christmas tree at the corner of Penn Avenue and Stanwix Street; the “talking tree” in the toy department at Gimbels, another iconic store that, like Horne's, is gone from its Sixth Avenue and Smithfield Street location; the window displays at Kaufmann's that Macy's kept as a tradition when it bought “The Big Store” at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Smithfield.
“We could not wait to come Downtown to see what magical scene they were creating at Kaufmann's, or stare up in awe at the Horne's tree,” said Joann Lewis of the Hill District.
Lewis, 55, said her mother would bring her and her sister to visit Santa at G.C. Murphy Co. or Kaufmann's. “And we always got our dresses at the York Dress Shop,” she said.
That store for girls on Fifth Avenue and Murphy's are gone, as are other staples for the working class: Woolworth's, the May-Stern furniture store and the Frank & Seder department store.
From the turn of the 20th century until the late 1980s, Pittsburgh's big three stores — Kaufmann's, Horne's and Gimbels — dedicated entire floors to Christmas wonderlands, filling aisles with popular toys, trains that children could ride, Santaland and Santa's workshops where children could shop for their parents in private.
A full-page Horne's ad from 1949 in the Sun-Telegraph boasted of a Throne Room for Santa on the third floor and a sixth-floor toy store “brimming with toys for every age.”
In that era before suburban shopping malls, people strolled the large stores for gifts and sought items such as turkeys, hams and spice for Christmas dinners at neighborhood stores, Masich said.
Strip District trimmings
Three generations of the Sunseri family have provided cheeses, meats such as soppressata, pastas, artichokes, nuts, breads and other Italian foods from their Penn Avenue store in the Strip District, where things get a little crazy before Thanksgiving and lasting through New Year's Day.
“It doesn't feel like Christmas until we come down here to do our food shopping,” said Courtney Spiccuzza of Lincoln Place, shopping with her mother, Jeri Full of Swisshelm Park, and cousin Adam Manella, visiting from Akron, Ohio.
The days just before Christmas arguably are the busiest of the year for Jimmy Sunseri and his brother Nino. Their parents, Tony and Ann, still help in the shop, Jimmy Sunseri & Nino Co.
“Some traditions change in Pittsburgh, but coming to the Strip is one that has stayed intact,” Jimmy Sunseri said last week, wearing his signature apron as he stood behind the meat-and-cheese counter chomping on an oversized cigar. “At any given moment, I can have four generations of one family shopping in the store.”
His cousins operate Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. “up the street,” established in 1902 by his grandfather. The Sunseri stores and the Robert Wholey & Co. seafood shop on Penn long have anchored the Strip District shopping experience for people in search of ethnic foods, Masich said.
“Sometimes they park blocks away and have to lug pounds of food in plastic bags around the sidewalks ... but they don't mind because it is part of their traditions,” he said.
Ann Sunseri, working at the counter on her 82nd birthday last week, accepted hugs and wishes of “Buon Natale!” from many customers seeking specialty foods for Christmas Eve.
The seasonal rush can bring standing room-only conditions, Jimmy Sunseri said.
“I always pray for patience for the customers,” he joked.
Churches, built by immigrants throughout the city, drew families as much as the stores and displays. The neighborhoods have changed over the years, and some churches and their schools are gone or repurposed, but the memories remain, said Tom Link of Lower Burrell.
Link, 56, dutifully attended Mass on Christmas Eve with his six brothers and sister in Annunciation Church at North Charles and Norwood streets in the North Side. Their father was an usher for the packed service.
“The next morning would begin with all of us lining up at the top of the stairs, oldest to youngest, as he would film us with his 8mm camera as we marched downstairs to open our presents,” Link said.
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com.
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