Get in the spirit with ‘Very Merry Pittsburgh’ at the Heinz History Center
There’s no place like Western Pennsylvania for the holidays.
The region’s rich heritage and family traditions during the winter months will be celebrated in a new exhibition, “A Very Merry Pittsburgh,” opening Nov. 16 at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the city’s Strip District.
Anne Madarasz, chief historian at Heinz History Center, said the exhibit will fill the first floor gallery with a collection of family keepsakes, artifacts, film and imagery. It explores how local families have celebrated winter holidays, including Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, throughout the years.
Not only the major holidays, but regional traditions that have become part of families’ lives — from the start of deer season and high school football championships, to the city’s First Night celebration and the Pittsburgh Polar Bear Club’s annual Polar Bear Plunge into the Monongahela River on New Year’s Day — will be included in the exhibition.
“It’s a time of the year when we normally come together to share traditions and make new memories with our families,” Madarasz said.
She said a team of Heinz History Center staff members worked on this exhibition to tie together all the pieces that comprise holiday celebrations past and present.
Department store windows
One unforgettable Pittsburgh holiday tradition involved the store Christmas windows that attracted families into the city to shop during the holidays.
Curator Leslie Przybylek said that by the 1920s, decorated windows were an annual part of the American holiday experience, including at Pittsburgh’s major department stores: Kaufmann’s, Joseph Horne Co., Gimbels and, until 1958, Boggs Buhl on the North Side.
Their display window themes varied from children’s stories and fairy tales to the circus, until World War II prompted more patriotic themes. Creative window displays continued until the growth of suburban malls after the 1960s eventually brought an end to the Downtown stores.
The history center holiday exhibit includes decorations and artifacts from Downtown Pittsburgh stores and memorable objects from Kaufmann’s Santaland, including Santa’s original chair, oversized Mr. and Mrs. Claus ornaments and the mailbox where thousands of Pittsburgh children mailed their Christmas wish lists to the North Pole.
A visit with Santa
John Suhr, who has portrayed Santa Claus in Pittsburgh for decades, including at Kaufmann’s and Macy’s and in the annual WPXI Holiday Parade, will hear children’s wishes and pose for photos from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on selected dates during the “A Very Merry Pittsburgh” exhibition.
There also will be an interactive play area with retro toys for kids of all ages to enjoy and a display of historic gifts and toys from the 1840s through present day that showcases the evolution of gift-giving in Western Pennsylvania.
The exhibit will include references to and photos of businesses in other communities that played integral roles during the holiday season. They included Cox’s in downtown McKeesport, Gable’s Department Store in Altoona, Penn Traffic in Johnstown, The Famous in McKeesport and Braddock, and Mansmann’s Department Store in East Liberty.
“All towns and regions had stores as well that became anchors for their communities,” Przybylek said.
Sounds and tastes of the holidays
Pittsburgh’s connection to holiday music through works by recording artists with ties to the area — such as Perry Como, Lena Horne and Billy Strayhorn — also will be a part of “A Very Merry Pittsburgh.”
“The exhibit will feature a theater section where visitors can watch a film of historic holiday photographs in our collection and listen to holiday music with a playlist of Pittsburgh voices,” Madarasz said.
The history center also takes a look at the holiday foods that are a favorite part of celebrations, from pizzelles and Christmas cookies to candy makers in the region — and even the Farkleberry cookies and tarts that were part of an ongoing holiday season fundraising campaign by KDKA radio broadcaster Jack Bogut.
In preparing the holiday exhibit, history center staff pored over hundreds of photos and histories of families that brought their ethnic traditions to Pittsburgh when they settled in the region.
“One of the things we discovered is that we have a great collection, but there are more stories we’d like to tell,” the chief historian said. “We’ll be reaching out to the community to share their own stories. It’s going to be a really rich exhibit that people can find themselves in.”
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.