Nationality Rooms Share Holiday Customs

  • Lithuanian Classroom Chairperson Janet Carlisle and E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs since 1965, stand next to a Christmas tree in the room. The tree is decorated with straw ornaments made by local nuns and small children, some more than two decades ago. Many Nationality Rooms are decked out in holiday décor that reflects the traditions of their cultures.
  • Members of the Afro-Colombian Dance Ensemble perform a Bullerengue-style dance at the Nationality Rooms Holiday Open House. The dancers, from left, are Noelle Potts, Kathryn Hines, Carolyn Ready, Victoria Lowrey and Shannon O'Reilly.
  • The Afro-Colombian Dance Ensemble conclude a Mapalé-style dance at the Holiday Open House. Atop is Katie Vrankin and on the bottom, from left, is Darrin Mosley, Maria Strnisha, Natalie Goforth, Molly Huey, Na'Keisha Barber, Victoria Lowrey and Carolyn Ready.
  • Members of the GTEV D’Lustigen Isartaler, widely considered Southwestern Pennsylvania’s premiere Bavarian cultural education organization, in traditional ethnic attire moments before their dance performance. From left: Emily Newcamp, Edward Loibl, Béla Pater, Maria Goelz, Shelly Newcamp, Ethan Fitten and Kimberly Pavicic.
  • Members of the Bavarian cultural organization GTEV D’Lustigen Isartaler during their dance routine. From left, are Shelly Newcamp, Edward Loibl, Emily Newcamp and Béla Pater.
  • Dancers from the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh enter the Commons Room for their fan dance performance. Pitt plans to begin construction of a Philippine Classroom — the 31st Nationality Room — in the summer of 2018. From left: Jared Jae Vilao, Marie Claire Rethage, Jason Chan, Patrick Cuevas and Lilian Stefanick.
  • Representatives of the African Heritage Classroom Committee at their booth, offering ethnic crafts and foods for sale. Dedicated in 1989, this Nationality Room is designed after a courtyard of an 18th century Asante temple. From left: committee member Kay Fitts, Joan Dickerson, treasurer of the room; and Chairperson and Pitt staff member Donna Alexander.

Garlands laced with pine cones, bay leaves and straw adorn the rear windows and right-hand wall of the Lithuanian Nationality Room inside the Cathedral of Learning. The grass cords converge at a 6-foot Christmas tree, decorated with handcrafted straw ornaments made by local nuns and children.

“Decorations in the Lithuanian classroom convey a reverence for nature that is customary within our culture. It’s very simplistic, but I feel there is a certain beauty in that simplicity,” said Janet Carlisle, who is of Lithuanian descent and is chairperson for the Lithuanian Nationality Room.

Carlisle leads one of 30 Nationality Room Committees, which are composed of local citizens who partner with the University of Pittsburgh to fundraise and support the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs. Every year, committee members decorate their individual Nationality Rooms with traditional ethnic décor that tells the story of their family’s native country and heritage.

National Rooms Holiday Tours

The Nationality Rooms will be decorated for the holidays through Jan. 13, 2018. Tours are $4 for adults and $2 for children. Tickets must be purchased on-site.

Weekend Hours

Audio-guided and group tours are offered on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Winter Recess Hours

Audio-guided tours are available Dec. 18-21, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Ticketed group, guided tours are available Dec. 27-31, from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

There are no tours Dec. 22-26, 2017, or Jan. 1, 2018.


Cathedral of Learning 
4200 Fifth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA  15260
(Please use the Fifth Avenue entrance.)

In celebration of the holidays, the committees recently pooled their resources for the 26th annual Nationality Room Holiday Open House. More than 3,000 people filled the Commons Room for the day-long affair on Dec. 3, which featured international dance and musical performances. Each committee sponsored booths offering authentic crafts, foods and memorabilia for sale. Additionally, Quo Vadis Guides — Pitt student tour guides with extensive knowledge of each Nationality Room — dressed in traditional cultural attire and told stories about the holiday traditions of various nationalities and cultures represented by the rooms.

All proceeds from the Holiday Open House supported Summer Study Abroad Nationality Rooms Scholarships. The scholarships enable select Pitt students to study for six weeks in parts of the world represented by the Nationality Rooms.

“In Southwestern Pennsylvania, there is perhaps no greater example of international tranquility than our Nationality Rooms and the individuals who nurture them,” said E. Maxine Bruhns, the master of ceremonies for the Holiday Open House and the director of Pitt’s Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange programs since 1965. “Throughout the Nationality Rooms’ proud history, these individuals have been our foundation, empowering our growth by contributing an unquestioned dedication to their own cultures and the cultures of others.”

As one of those dedicated individuals, Carlisle assumed her leadership role in 2014, but her connection to the Lithuanian Nationality Room dates back generations. Her father — Pitt alumnus John McCloskey — and mother, Josephine, served as the committee chairperson and secretary, respectively, during the early 1990s. Additionally, both sets of Carlisle’s grandparents, who immigrated to the United States from Lithuania in the 1920s, actively supported the classroom throughout its history.

“The Lithuanian Nationality Room, for me, represents my ancestry and a sense of belonging to a close-knit community of people,” said Carlisle. “I walk into that room and I see a beautiful history that I want to have preserved for future generations. That sentiment is true year-round, but it is especially true during the holiday season.”

Pitt alumna Karen Yee is another individual whose history with the National Rooms spans generations. Her family has been closely aligned with the Chinese Nationality Room throughout its nearly 80-year history.

Before stepping down in 2015, Yee served as the chairperson for more than a quarter century. Her father — fellow Pitt alumnus and Pittsburgh restauranteur Hoy Fung — was one of the original donors and played an integral role in fundraising efforts throughout the 1930s. Another family member and Pitt alumnus, Kwok Ying Fung, crafted the calligraphy on the classroom’s original chairs shortly before the room’s unveiling in 1939.

The Chinese Nationality Room annually commemorates the Chinese New Year, a two-week celebration beginning on Friday, Feb. 16 this year, that is widely regarded as China’s most significant holiday. 

Each holiday decoration for the room is made from materials that have symbolic importance. Two floral arrangements on the room’s left-hand wall contain bamboo — a plant that symbolizes the resilience of a spirit that bends but does not break — as well as plum blossoms, a flower that blooms in the winter and is emblematic of perseverance and purity. Ornaments hanging from the ceiling include firecrackers, which, according to lore, scare away evil spirits. Oranges, a symbol of good luck, rest in the center of the round seminar table.

“The Nationality Rooms, as a whole, represent the various ways that different groups can come together and learn from each other. This is a unique and special program that my family has always been proud to be a part of,” said Yee, who oversaw several major milestones in the classroom’s history, including the celebration of its 75th anniversary in 2014. “The Nationality Classroom Committees are a community of gracious and noble people who take pride in our individual cultures, and we are more than willing to share the virtues of our traditions with people from all walks of life.”