Deck the ’Burgh: Light-Up Night kicks off the holiday season

In a month, the semester will be over and it will be time to kick back, relax, and enjoy some time off. For now, you can get your holiday fix by engaging in some of the holiday events going on in Pittsburgh. This weekend, downtown Pittsburgh, usually visited and acclaimed for its almost 400 year-round shops and eateries, was host to countless activities. Lights, fun, and food could be found anywhere and everywhere in celebration of the season.

Light-Up Night

On Friday, Pittsburgh ushered in the holidays with its 47th annual Light-Up Night downtown. A famous and well-loved Pittsburgh tradition, Light-Up Night is the official start of the holiday season. Presented by Macy’s (formerly Kaufmann’s), the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Duquesne Light, downtown merchants, and the Building Owners and Managers Association, Light-Up Night would be impossible to pull off without the efforts of thousands of local volunteers. Every year, about 50,000 people show up to enjoy Light-Up Night and all the exciting festivities it has to offer. Taking over Market Square, PPG Plaza, and Station Square, it features myriad events, people, cultures, activities, music, shopping, and, of course, lights.

The official lighting of the Christmas tree took place at 5:45 p.m. on Friday. Within hours, the streets of Market Square were crowded and bustling with people enjoying the food and eagerly awaiting the fireworks display at 9 p.m. There were many students in the crowds of spectators. Stephanie Johnson, a chemistry major at Chatham College, strolled about with her friends, enjoying the sights. “[Light-Up Night is] a nice night where the whole city comes together,” she said. “It’s a great experience and a good way to get away from the hectic life of a college student. It’s awesome to come down and see all the lights and people and see how much fun everyone’s having.”

The most eye-catching event of all, the Gingerbread House Display and Competition, in its fourth year, graced the windows of PPG Place. Surprisingly enough, gingerbread was not the only material, just as houses were not the only structures. Statues of Gumby look-alikes, nativity scenes, lighthouses, and the White House were just some of the structures scattered throughout the display. The gingerbread houses were judged in different categories, including Family, High School, and Non-Profit Child.

Beth Rupert, a Pittsburgh native, talked about making gingerbread houses and Light-Up Night in general. “This is our first Light-Up Night. My husband will [be upset with] me because I’m eight months pregnant but we still came down!” she said. Rupert and her daughter Amanda had helped make one of the larger gingerbread houses with Brownie Troop #222, which they were eagerly searching for in the numerous window displays. Despite having lived in Pittsburgh her entire life, Rupert had never been to Light-Up Night and decided to take her children so they could all enjoy their first experience together.

The first-place winner in the middle school category was a re-creation of a lighthouse and small cottage on the water, appropriately titled Christmas at the Beach. Created by Girl Scout Troop #807 from North Allegheny Middle School, the structure showcased an 18-inch lighthouse with “brick” made out of oyster crackers and licorice. It was placed adjacent to a quaint graham-cracker cottage with the traditional candy roof and porch and a cinnamon-stick fence.

Many of the other structures were also impressive. The windows boasted of re-creations of the Colosseum in Rome, Mellon Arena, Heinz Field, the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and even a Wal-Mart. Girl Scout Troop #603 made a replica of the traditional green Girl Scout vest, surrounded by the words “Girl Scouts is about trying new things.” All of the gingerbread creations were for sale, with proceeds going to Children’s Hospital’s Free Care Fund.

The night ended in a finale of fireworks over the Allegheny River. Visitors headed over to Macy’s to see the unveiling of the holiday windows, presented by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. People could get a head start on Christmas shopping, do a little window shopping, or catch a quick show. Student performers from various high schools sang Christmas carols to throngs of spectators in the women’s shoe department at Macy’s. Shortly after, a narrator read an abridged version of The Nutcracker, accompanied by music and a ballet ensemble. Restaurants in Market Square were open to the public, serving as places for food and warmth. Inside PPG Plaza, live bands played and various holiday trinkets and gifts were on sale.

Fifth Avenue Place was also festive and inviting. Outside, student organizations from different high schools and universities sang Christmas carols. Though there was no shopping, people still milled about inside Fifth Avenue Place, getting food, meeting Santa — and his giant reindeer — and taking in all of the sights and sounds.

Thanksgiving events

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, events are happening all over Pittsburgh in celebration of Turkey Day. Remember Clippership during Orientation? The Gateway Clipper Fleet will host a Thanksgiving ’80s dance party cruise with local band Ferris Bueller’s Revenge on Wednesday. In addition, it will also host a Thanksgiving Day dinner, prepared by a chef, accompanied by a live band, and accentuated by the view of the Pittsburgh skyline. Some of the Steelers will help out with a food drive at Dick’s Sporting Goods at the Mall at Robinson tomorrow. Visitors will be able to donate non-perishable food items, enter a raffle for an autographed football, and feel good about helping those in need. Various churches and other places of worship will also host their own Thanksgiving dinners along with services for the public.

Holiday events around Pittsburgh

Light-Up Night was merely the beginning. Many of the events are ongoing and can be enjoyed by the public until Christmas Day. A big favorite is the Dollar Bank Holley Trolley tour, which allows you to get aboard a traditional-style trolley and take a tour of downtown, including the Hard Rock Café at Station Square, the Pittsburgh Cultural District, and the ice rink at PPG Place. Horse-drawn carriage rides in the city are also available. The best part of it all: Both are completely free.

The PPG Wintergarden’s “Spirits of Giving From Around the World” exhibit pays homage to Pittsburgh’s diverse cultures. The display featured a 32-foot Christmas tree with lights and decorations of different shapes and sizes. In addition, there are oil paintings and a showcase of life-sized Santas representing 16 countries. Each Santa is dressed in the traditional attire of its corresponding country, while a display book contains stories telling the origins and traditions of countries including Ukraine, Haiti, Italy, China, Poland, Germany, and Ireland. For example, the exhibit describes the Star Man, draped in deep crimson robes adorned with gold stars, who gave small gifts and cookies to children in Poland after Christmas Eve supper. Another example is the Italian tradition, in which La Befana came down the chimney with gifts and firewood on January 5, the eve of the epiphany. La Befana, unlike traditional Santas of other countries, was female, dressed in magnificent blue robes, and carried a bell and cane. The exhibit will remain in the PPG Wintergarden until January 7.

There’s also reason to head over to Phipps Conservatory. The Winter Flower Show brings a little color to the drab and dreary days of winter with bright, beautiful displays of poinsettias, azaleas, chrysanthemums, and more. The conservatory itself also features holiday displays and visits with Santa, as well as choirs and candlelight tours. After Thanksgiving, Phipps will have a three-day program in which visitors can have a breakfast prepared by some of the best caterers in Pittsburgh, attend a cooking demonstration with a celebrity chef, or just wander, looking at or purchasing any of the various crafts or greenery around.

For those who do not live near an ice rink such as the one in Schenley Park, it can be difficult to be able to enjoy ice skating, the age-old winter pastime. At the ice skating rink at PPG Place, opened on Light-Up Night, men, women, and children of all ages can whiz by the decorated Christmas tree in the center of the rink. Ice skating at PPG Place makes for a great way to wind down after work or school, hang out with friends, and bond with family, until its clothing after Christmas.

On Walnut Street in Shadyside, typical shopping will be transformed over Thanksgiving weekend into a fantasy of holiday cheer and shopping. Decorations will adorn lights and lampposts, brightening the streets. Various shops and restaurants will have special holiday treats for visitors. Street entertainment, carolers, and Santa Claus will frequent the streets until Christmas, lifting spirits and spreading cheer. Businesses will also be hosting a raffle in an effort to raise money for the Children’s Hospital’s Free Care Fund.

With such a multitude of events going on, it is difficult to not be excited about the upcoming holidays. Pittsburgh’s mission has been accomplished: Boredom during the next few months has been completely abolished; there is an event or activity for nearly everyone. If all else fails, you can at least look forward to being with family and friends, and remembering the things that matter most.