December is perhaps the most exciting time of year for Pittsburgh families. People of many different backgrounds join together this month to honor something truly beautiful–the spirit of generosity that underlies the traditional celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. And even for those families who don’t take part in these holidays, there is still much to appreciate over the next month, including some of my favorite things–twinkling lights, evening ice skating, bright red poinsettias, fresh snow, carriage rides, hot chocolate, New Year’s Eve and so much more.

Here and then gone–December seems to slip through a parent’s fingers faster each year. To help you make the most of this month with your kids, we present our Top 10 family adventures this December in Pittsburgh.

Spending a Saturday in Downtown Pittsburgh

No December would be complete without a pilgrimage to Downtown Pittsburgh on a Saturday. There is so much to do in the city’s center that it can be overwhelming. So let me walk you through it. First, some logistics. There is free parking on Saturdays in Pittsburgh Parking Authority garages. There is also a free Holly Trolley that can shuttle you between all the holiday hotspots.

At PPG Place.  Photo by Brian Cohen.
At PPG Place. Photo by Brian Cohen.

And there are several key destinations Downtown. The first is PPG Place’s free Wintergarden with its life-sized Santa figurines from countries around the world, a gingerbread house display and a model train layout. The Plaza at PPG Place holds the MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink where your family can skate below the towering 65-foot Christmas tree at its center. Across the street at Market Square, your child can visit with Santa while you shop for hand-crafted gifts at its traditional German-style Peoples Gas Holiday Market. Just a short walk away, both Fifth Avenue Place and One Oxford Centre offer hands-on holiday activities for kids, shopping and food. This year, the Cultural District also offers a new children’s program called Holiday Kidsplay–with free children’s activities and performances for your family.

Looking for more stops? Check out the window displays at Macy’s, the Pittsburgh Creche at the US Steel Workers Plaza and the free carriage rides on Fourth Avenue near PPG Place.

The Sugar Plum Fairy, Photo courtesy of PBT
The Sugar Plum Fairy, Photo courtesy of PBT

Adoring the Sugar Plum Fairy at the Nutcracker

Many local families visit Downtown Pittsburgh for another favorite tradition each year–the classic holiday ballet, the Nutcracker. This year, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s presents its annual production from Dec. 5-28 at the Benedum Center. Tickets start at $27.

PBT Artistic Director, Terrence S. Orr, has been interpreting one of the world’s most popular ballets for Pittsburgh since the early 2000s when he first took the reins. His version of the Nutcracker blends traditional components with parts specifically designed to appeal to local audiences–such as a set design and storyline that reflect Pittsburgh traditions and landmarks, including the breathtaking scene atop Mt. Washington with the Golden Triangle in the distance.

If you miss it, you have another chance to see the Sugar Plum Fairy. She will be at Phipps Conservatory on Dec. 6 and 13, offering a free with admission 30-minute creative movement class starting at 10:30 a.m.

Finally, if you have a child with autism or another sensory-processing disorder, the PBT will offer its second annual sensory-friendly production of the Nutcracker on Dec. 23 at 2 p.m.

Singing with Santa and the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale

There are so many wonderful Christmas concerts in Pittsburgh each year, it’s hard to choose which one to attend with your family. If you’re looking for a concert  specifically geared to children, check out the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale’s Singin’ with Santa on Dec. 6 at 11 a.m. at Ingomar United Methodist Church in the North Hills. This new sing-along concert has been organized by a group of local parents who wanted an affordable, fun and interactive way to introduce the smallest Pittsburgh kids to traditional holiday music. Santa will take the stage during the performance and kids can get their picture taken with him after the show. Tickets are only $10 per family.

Crafting at Handmade Arcade, Photo courtesy of Handmade Arcade
Crafting at Handmade Arcade, Photo courtesy of Handmade Arcade

Doing some holiday crafting at Handmade Arcade

December is a month when consumers come out in full force. We spend, spend and spend more as we prepare to shower our loved ones with gifts for the holidays. If you are looking for a chance to take a break from trusty Target, support local artisans and teach your kids about the joy of creating handmade gifts, I highly recommend checking out Handmade Arcade on Dec. 6 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Handmade Arcade offers free admission, 150+ vendors selling high-quality items, live music, raffles and tons more.

Kids are heartily welcomed at this unique shopping experience and I suspect they’ll have a blast. The day begins with an Opening Ceremony Puppet Parade featuring Colonel Eagleburger’s Highstepping Goodtime Band and larger-than-life colorful puppets. Families can then wander over to Hands-on Handmade–a dedicated area for kids where local organizations and artists will help them create handmade gift items. From making colorful chromatography snowflakes with Assemble to personalized copper key-tags with Contemporary Craft to environmentally-themed note cards with Tree Pittsburgh, your child can create something you will treasure forever.

Getting cultured at the Cathedral of Learning’s Holiday Open House

The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning is simply amazing–equal parts academic building, historical museum and Gothic architectural masterpiece. Each year,  Pitt opens its doors to the public for its free Holiday Open House where families are invited to explore the 29 Nationality Rooms-each decorated in traditional holiday styles from countries around the world. The afternoon is much more than a holiday event; it’s also a truly unique way to educate your children about the diversity of cultures in our region. Within the Cathedral’s awe-inspiring central “Commons Room,” child and adult performers don traditional costumes and demonstrate dances from across the globe. Vendors also sell ethnic foods such as German streudel and Indian samosas, Turkish baklava and much more. From the colorful costumes to the lively music, this event is truly a feast for the senses. This year’s “Holiday Open House” will be held on Dec. 7 from 12-4 p.m.

If you can’t make it to the Open House, I still strongly suggest visiting the Nationality Rooms during the holiday season. They will remain decorated until Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend.

Candlelight Evenings at Phipps. Photo by Paul G. Wiegman
Candlelight Evenings at Phipps. Photo by Paul G. Wiegman

Wandering through Phipps during its Candlelit Evenings

Another must-see spot during the holiday season is Phipps Conservatory’s Winter Flower Show, especially during its Candlelit Evenings from 5-11 p.m. until Jan. 11. The theme for this year’s Winter Flower Show is “Winter Wonderland,” based on the well-known holiday carol of the same name. As you wander through the Conservatory, you will recognize motifs from the song, such as “in the meadow we can build a snowman” and “sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” At this time of year, Phipps is truly transformed into nothing less than a Wonderland–with brilliant poinsettias, aromatic fir trees, twinkling lights and festive holiday decorations. During Candlelit Evenings, the overhead lights are dimmed and hundreds of candles flicker along the pathways through the greenery. With soft holiday music in the background and a cup of mulled wine or hot chocolate in hand, the experience is truly magical.

During Candlelit Evenings, you can also venture outside to Phipps’ Winter Light Garden–where displays of lighted trees, arches, fountains and orbs illuminate the Outdoor and Children’s Discovery Gardens.

Celebrating Hanukkah with the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh

December is also an exciting month for the Jewish community of Pittsburgh as they celebrate Hanukkah, the traditional eight day “Festival of Lights.” The Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh‘s Hanukkah festivities will begin at its Kef Weekend from Dec. 12-14 at Squirrel Hill’s JCC. Friday night’s activities will include a “Hanukkah Hoedown,” with a kosher barbecue dinner, square-dancing and Hanukkah-themed crafts and games. Saturday will offer a “Got Shabbat,” with more Hanukkah-themed activities for kids under 10. Finally, Sunday morning will feature a “PJ Story Adventure,” where families with children less than six years old are invited to experience the storybook Hanukkah Trike through a story time, story stations with different themes and crafts, a family project and more.

The JCC in Squirrel Hill will also be holding a “First Night of Hanukkah” event on Dec. 16 at 4:30 p.m. Families are invited to congregate on Forbes Avenue for the ceremonial lighting of the first branch of the large outdoor menorah. There will also be live performances by Temple Sinai and the International Jewish High School Choir, as well as a drumming circle from Community Day School. There will even be free jelly donuts and hot chocolate to enjoy.

Please note: Non-Jewish families are invited to all of the above events.

Neapolitan presepio at Carnegie Museum of Art, Photo courtesy of CMOA
Neapolitan presepio at Carnegie Museum of Art, Photo courtesy of CMOA

Exploring the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History for FREE!

The Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History will offer free admission on Thursday, Dec. 11 and 18 from 4-8 p.m. These evenings give Pittsburgh families the chance to explore some exciting changes at the museums. First, you can take a peek into the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture with its annual holiday display of magnificent 20-foot decorated Christmas trees and the Neapolitan presepio, a 250 square-foot nativity display with a rich history. Handcrafted by some of the finest artisans of the so-called “Golden Age of Naples,” it’s considered one of the finest of its type in the world. Filled with lifelike figures–both human and angelic–animals, buildings and the tiniest accessories of unbelievable detail–the Neapolitan presepio deserves slow, reverent investigation.

Also, at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, you can introduce your children to the newly relocated Discovery Basecamp, an interactive, hands-on space just for them. Now located in a much larger space on the first floor, the Discovery Basecamp makes the study of natural history accessible to kids. They can touch real animal specimens, use a microscope to inspect butterfly wings, do puzzles, read books and even play in the eco-friendly pretend house–complete with its own mini rain barrel!

Celebrating Kwanzaa with the Community Empowerment Association

The end of December holds another special cultural celebration. Kwanzaa, the first holiday specifically devoted to the beauty of African-American culture that is observed from Dec. 26-Jan. 1. The festival honors seven principles that likely resonate with us all–unity, creativity, faith, purpose, self-determination, cooperative economics and collective responsibility.

The largest local celebration of Kwanzaa is hosted by the Community Empowerment Association (CEA) in Homewood. Drawing over 500 people from throughout the city, the CEA will host its 20th Annual Kwanzaa celebration on Dec. 27 from 3-9 p.m.

The event is a truly beautiful way to honor the African-American community in our city–whether you are a part of it or not. Local drummers and dancers will perform, artisans will sell handcrafted ethnic items and traditional foods will be shared–for free–with the community. There will also be an educational session about the history of Kwanzaa and Nation-Building Awards will be given out to Pittsburgh leaders who have worked to strengthen the African-American community.

If you plan on attending this free event, please bring a covered dish without pork to share and a toy. They will generously be distributed to the children in attendance.

Ringing in the New Year at Highmark First Night

It always makes me smile to know that so many Pittsburgh families choose to end this fleeting month–and year–gathered together at the heart of our city for the annual celebration of First Night. Hosted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Highmark First Night draws about 40,000 attendees from across the region. Beginning at 6 p.m., the evening features an extensive number of events and activities throughout Downtown Pittsburgh. Magic shows and face-painting. Children’s dance parties and concerts. Ice sculptures. Fire shows and silk-screening. A giant Puppet Parade. The River City Brass. Fireworks at both 6 p.m. (for the little ones) and at midnight. The list goes on and on. All I have to say is this–you will love Pittsburgh even more after seeing how many community members come out to help your children celebrate this special night. Admission buttons are available for purchase here. For more information about family-friendly events at First Night, go here.

See more events including holiday theater in this NEXTpittsburgh article. 

It’s been a fabulous year, Pittsburgh. We’re wishing you a December filled to the brim with love and laughter and a New Year with many new adventures. Happy Holidays from NEXTpittsburgh!

Nadine Champsi

Doctor turned write-at-home-mom of two wonderful children. Founder of the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog. Editor of Kidsburgh. Contributing Editor at Next Pittsburgh. In love with the city of Pittsburgh and so excited to be raising a family here.