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Go behind the scenes as Pitt’s Nationality Rooms are decorated for the holidays

  • Global
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • Nationality Rooms Program and Intercultural Exchange

On a recent Saturday morning, the halls of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning were filled with cardboard boxes and plastic containers stuffed with holiday decorations from around the globe.

Committees representing nearly all of Pitt’s 31 Nationality Rooms spent their morning listening to traditional tunes, decking the halls, and coming together to reflect and prepare for the holiday season ahead of the Nationality Rooms’ annual holiday open house, which will be held in person after a two-year hiatus on Sunday, Dec. 4, from noon to 4 p.m.

The rooms are adorned year-round with artifacts specific to countries and regions around the globe, from Korea to Sweden to Ukraine. During the holiday season, however, all but one — the Turkish Room — are decorated to reflect the unique ways each culture celebrates its December and January traditions. Guests at the open house can enjoy crafting and cultural demonstrations, traditional food and baked goods, holiday music and photos with St. Nicholas.

In several of the rooms, holiday decorating is a multi-generational family affair.

Kathleen and Kristen Risa have been part of the Norwegian Room Committee since they first moved to Pittsburgh in 1967, and their daughter, Anne Risa, is now involved as well.

“We come to the Norwegian Room to do this every year — it’s a ritual for us,” said Kathleen, the appointed family storyteller. “It’s important to us that these traditions be shown to the community and maintained.”

The Norwegian Room’s tree features the typical star on top, though it is also paired with more traditionally Norwegian decorations, including strands of tiny flags draped up and down the tree, mushroom ornaments, gnomes and heart-shaped woven baskets that are often filled with candies.

“Patriotism is very important to Norwegians because it’s such a new Democracy,” Kathleen said. “For hundreds and hundreds of years, Norway was a part of either Sweden or Denmark.”

Of course, Christmas isn’t the only holiday tradition represented in the Nationality Rooms. The Chinese Room was decorated to commemorate the Lunar New Year. This year is the year of the rabbit, and the committee’s chair, Shellie Yeung, brought members together to hang firecrackers and place decorative oranges around the room.

“To our committee, this is a ritual. We get together and we gather all these traditional decorative items and we have a lot of fun,” said Yeung. “We’ll bring children and decorate and usually we’ll gather for lunch afterwards.”

Yeung said the committee’s decorations are a great way to share their culture with Pittsburgh. “We light up firecrackers to scare evil spirits during the new year. All the writing on the wall is a greeting to the people who come in to visit your home. The oranges mean we hope to have a lucky, prosperity-filled new year.”

During the open house, the Chinese Room Committee will be sharing even more of their traditions by teaching guests how to make Chinese knots and offering calligraphy demonstrations in the Commons Room.

Meanwhile, the Indian Room’s committee filled their space with flower garlands to celebrate Diwali, the festival of colors. Rashmi Ravindra, who has been part of the committee since the room’s dedication in 2000, tidied up showcases and hung orange and white garlands around the periphery of the room. Ravindra said it was important to past Nationality Rooms director Maxine Bruhns to adhere to the rules originally established for the rooms, including no representation of traditions established after 1787, so traditional flower garlands for Diwali have been their focus, though modern-day India is diverse and celebrates many different holidays.

“These are the decorations done for Diwali — that is our Christmas. It’s typical in India to use flowers for decorations. Different parts of the country use different things, too, like paper lanterns.”

Across the Cathedral in the French Room, Michelle Gau, now a sophomore at Pitt, has been joining her mother, Myriam Gau, to celebrate Noël — Christmas in France — for years. Michelle and Myriam are involved in Pittsburgh’s French community on and off campus, with Myriam serving as the president of Pittsburgh’s French Cultural Center. Their French conversation and laughter helped to fill the room as they decked its tree with tiny Eiffel towers and champagne glasses.

“Usually during Christmas, Hannukah and New Year’s, there are a lot more French holidays, and at Pitt, you can celebrate them all in this room that’s been here for years,” said Michelle. “And so, we decorate for Noël and we celebrate Crêpe Day in January and it’s just really fun. I’ve been doing it with my mother ever since I was a kid, and it’s really nice being on campus as a student now.”

What you need to know if you go

Guided tours of the Nationality Rooms are available beginning Friday, Nov. 25; no tours will be held on Nov. 27. Guests must register at least four days in advance to receive a slot. There are no self-guided tours at this time. Interactive online tours are also available for those who can’t make it to Pittsburgh.

The University of Pittsburgh’s requirements for face coverings follow CDC COVID-19 community levels. If the level in Allegheny County is high, masks are required indoors. If the level is medium or low, masks are optional. Signs outside the Cathedral of Learning will alert visitors of the current level. For more information, visit coronavirus.pitt.edu.


 —  Maggie Grey McDonald, photography by Aimee Obidzinski