My kids are bouncing off the ceiling. Each day, they seem wound a little tighter and the list of things they need gets longer. I’m beginning to dread the holiday break—and the season has only just begun.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yeah….right.
Feeling Scrooge-like, I wonder if it is still possible for families to celebrate the holiday season without video games, television or spirited arguing? Could Pittsburgh’s vast array of holiday traditions still charm today’s high-tech generation? It was time to find out.
I gather my kids, Anthony, 13 and Marissa, 11, and their friends, Rebecca Twinney, 11 and Marcus Edvardsson, 9, and head downtown one Saturday morning. Since they’re much too energetic, the first stop is the ice rink at PPG Plaza.
“The tongue goes inside the skate, just like on shoes….no, it’s not broken…don’t worry we can loosen it….don’t worry we can tighten it.”
Whew. I was happy to see them clatter up the ramp to the ice. The rink had just opened for the day, and the ice looked like glass. With a sparkling Christmas tree in the center, and the surrounding Palace-like PPG buildings, a fairy tale atmosphere presides as holiday music fills the air.
Here, it’s all about kids. Moms and dads hold up small children on wobbly legs. New skaters hug the rail, while in the center more seasoned skaters flow with such grace that their skates seem to be part of them—like gliding on two knives is natural.
My tension starts to ebb as I soak up the music, the fresh air and the magical scene. Except for an occasional squeal of delight, the kids are happy and …quiet.
Eventually, their noses turn red and their lips blue, and it’s time to get warm. Ditching the skates—waaaaay easier than putting them on—we head across the plaza to the Wintergarden to see the life-size Santas.
The boys immediately run to the trains winding through the gingerbread village where they stand, mesmerized. The candy-covered gingerbread houses and licorice trees look right out of Willy Wonka.
“Oh, look,” says Marcus, pointing, “Heinz Field!” Sure enough, there it is, complete with gummy-bear fans stuck in yellow-frosting seats.
This brings the girls over, and they ooh and ahh over Rapunzel’s castle and the Eiffel Tower with Mr. Roger’s colorful trolley encircling it.
We learn about international Christmas traditions—Italy’s La Befana, and France’s Pere Noel, who gives switches to bad children.
“What are switches?” asks Rebecca.“You have obviously been a very good girl,” I laugh.Ohmygosh. I actually laughed.
The Russian Santa is blue from head to toe which prompts Marcus to say, “He looks like he froze to death.” The Latin American Viejo Pascero and the Ancient Kings from the Middle East look warmer.
“I would like to eat all these gingerbread houses, they look so good,” says Marcus. That’s the cue it’s time for food, so off we head to the Omni William Penn.Horse-drawn carriages jingle past us, and soon the hotel’s shiny brass revolving doors deposit us in the most exquisite lobby in all of Pittsburgh.
“The hotel is 90 years old,” says Assistant Outlet Manager Tom Doonan. “It’s never closed.” We look up as he tells us about hand carved ceiling with its original gold leaf. “That means it has REAL gold in it,” Tom tells the kids, sagely. Their eyes grow bigger.
“It must have taken forever to carve,” says Marissa appreciating the huge expanse. The sparking chandeliers were shipped from Cannes, France, says Tom, and are worth $500,000 each. They are still hand-cranked, he tells us. It takes 360 turns to lower them, and 360 to raise them. Every time they lower them—for cleaning and to change light bulbs—they have a champagne celebration in the lobby.
Hmmm, a Pittsburgh tradition, I didn’t know about.
We sample the “Mad Hatter” tea from a multi-tiered plate that’s taller than my young guests. It includes peanut butter and jelly and banana bite tea sandwiches, along with all manner of sweets. The scones taste like London, especially with a dollop of Devonshire cream on top. Tom even slips in a few “adult” tea sandwiches—tomato with caramelized onion, carrot topped with smoked turkey, and cucumber and smoked salmon. Heaven.
We pour our hot chocolate and tea from individual pots. “Pinkies out,” I say primly. “You look mahvelous,” we commend each other in our very best British accents.
The food gets rave reviews from the kids. You have to try this. This chocolate is great. What’s a scone?
“A lot of older people come here and say, ‘I remember coming here with my grandparents for tea,’” says Tom. It makes me smile, feeling like we’re carrying on a great tradition.
Next stop? The Windows. “We’re going to look at windows?” asks Marissa. These are special windows, I assure her.
When we round the corner of Smithfield Street, the crowds confirm that. Macy’s has selected the 1897 story of “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause” as its theme. “Awwww, look at the puppy,” the girls squeal at the first window. As we stroll down the street, the kids find Santa hiding in every scene, and almost clap when they see him whizzing through the sky at the end. I read their minds….maybe, just maybe we can still believe.
We make room for a grandma in a wheelchair, proving this tradition is for kids of all ages.
Little feet are tired. We still haven’t seen the life-size crèche at the U.S. Steel plaza or the dazzling giant tree and menorah at the City-County building, but these are left for another day. We wave to the Horne’s Christmas tree on the way out of town, not quite ready to break the spell.
I assure them that more wonder awaits our next time out, to see one of Pittsburgh’s most revered holiday traditions, the Miniature Railroad and Village. This year, one-third of the railroad’s platform will be changed, the most in its 15-year history at the Science Center. They added the world’s first Gulf gas station, a new Luna Park entrance to the amusement park section and a station roundhouse, turntable and working switches to make the exhibit more interactive.
Thomas the Tank Engine fans will be in heaven. We can hardly wait.
Anne Lutz is a freelance writer from Mt. Lebanon. She last wrote about Bill Strickland for Pop City
Photos:Anne Lutz and children having high tea at the William Penn HotelAnthony Lutz racing around the rink at PPG PlaceMarissa Lutz looking over one of the international Santas in the WintergardenMarcus Edvardsson pointing out the train set running through the gingerbread townMarissa Lutz at high tea
Anne Lutz and company looking at the Macy's christmas window displays
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene