Pitt's Cathedral of Learning Nationality Rooms decked out for the holidays
The Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning came alive Sunday for visitors to experience authentic holiday traditions from around the world, from Philippine sweet rice Biko to Lithuanian straw ornaments and Welsh currant tea cakes.
The 27th annual open house was attended by thousands who took advantage of mild weather to meander through the 30 rooms decked out in traditional holiday grandeur.
“It’s important to keep these traditions alive and teach people about them,” said Frances Zalesky, a Verona resident and member of the Lithuanian committee.
Zalesky’s grandparents both migrated from Lithuania and educated her on the simple straw ornaments and window candles that would be used to celebrate Christmas.
“There would be a Christmas Eve dinner that would be meatless and dairy free,” she said. “It would be a lot of fish and veggies.”
The Nationality Rooms are on the first and third floors of the Cathedral of Learning. Each was designed to represent the culture of various ethnic groups that settled in Allegheny County and are supported by individual committees. Though tours are offered year-round, the holiday open house is meant to reintroduce people to the rooms, said Maryann Sivak, assistant to the director of the Nationality Rooms.
The event featured Pitt student tour guides in each room to explain the history of the culture’s holiday celebration to visitors.
Annie Hayden, a junior, talked about how Irish homes would be appointed with fresh holly and ivy and focus on the manger. German room tour guide Chiara Montenegra said Germans were the first to decorate Christmas trees and almonds are commonly used as ornaments.
Zach Hartman, the Polish room tour guide, told a touching tale of how Polish families celebrate with a big family meal but always leave an empty plate for the coming of Jesus.
“I thought that was kind of a neat thing to learn,” Hartman said.
There was a buzz of people in and around each of the rooms, with music and dance performances in the grand lobby, and foods, ornaments and craft tables scattered about.
Organizers expected 4,000 people would be milling around, sampling salmon pie from Finland and curry from India.
Lynn Ejzak of Penn Hills and Sally Morton of Bloomfield dressed in traditional Finnish frocks to serve blueberry tarts and raise awareness, and money, for a potential room representing Finland.
It costs about $400,000 to design and curate each room, Ejzak said. They have reached about one-quarter of that in fundraising, she said, but hopes that the room becomes reality in just a few years.
Larry Kozlowski, of Monroeville, is a retiree who now fills his schedule chairing the Polish committee. He travels the Pittsburgh region teaching the traditions and recipes of his ancestral land, he said.
On Sunday, he made hundreds of oplatki, or thin wafers, and explained to visitors that Polish families are great believers in recycling.
“They save egg shells and feathers, all the things that we throw away, and use them to make ornaments and decorate,” he said.
Jack Owen of McCandless said that the Welsh are known for a simple style of decorating with greens and candles in the windows.
“It’s very plain,” he said, “but beautiful.”
Amid all the activity, Squirrel Hill resident Wendy Bennett sat motionless and admired the brown henna tattoo being painted on her wrist by Sanju Yadav. She makes it a tradition to attend the holiday open house every year.
“Growing up, my great aunt would bring me,” she said. “The food, the dance — what’s not to love?”
Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 412-782-2121, ext. 2, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tawnyatrib.