Each holiday season, an estimated 250,000 people flock to the courtyard of the lofty U.S. Steel Tower to admire the Pittsburgh Crèche, a festive tribute to (and the only authorized replica of) the Vatican’s Christmas crèche in St. Peter’s Square, Rome. The larger-than-life nativity scene is one of the city's most anticipated holiday displays—learn about its history and when to see it for yourself.
How the Crèche Came to Pittsburgh
According to the Pittsburgh Foundation, Louis D. Astorino—chairman of the Pittsburgh architectural firm L.D. Astorino Companies—first saw the Vatican crèche during a 1993 business trip to Rome and was moved by its beauty. Envisioning a similar display in his hometown, Astorino worked to gain approval from Vatican officials. Once he secured the actual plans for the crèche, he commissioned sculptor Pietro Simonelli to recreate the figures for Pittsburgh's version of the famous nativity scene. The Pittsburgh Crèche, sponsored by the ecumenical Christian Leaders Fellowship, first opened for public viewing in December 1999 at its permanent downtown location.
What You Will See
Each year, a total of 20 life-size figures—including the original figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, three shepherds, a servant girl, and three angels—are put on display with various barnyard animals—including a camel, donkey, ox, cow, ram, and goat—under a raised stone shelter in the shadow of the 841-foot U.S. Steel Tower. In recent years, an angel was added by the sculptor to hang over the crib, and the animals in the manger were joined by a full-size reclining cow. Built from the original plans of Vatican architect Umberto Mezzana, the mock stable is 64 feet wide, 42 feet high, and 36 feet deep. It weighs an impressive 66,000 pounds.
The figures in the crèche were built by first erecting wooden frames for their bodies. Then, their hands, feet, and faces were modeled from clay and covered with papier-mâché. Clothing for the figures was designed and sewed by women around the Pittsburgh area, adhering to the Vatican tradition.
When to Visit
The Pittsburgh Crèche is open to the public 24 hours a day at U.S. Steel Plaza. The annual dedication opens in conjunction with Pittsburgh's Comcast Light Up Night, which has been canceled in 2020. While the usual local musicians and choruses may not be there to perform inspirational Christmas music for visitors, the nativity scene will still be on display from November through early January 2021.
Around town, there will also be ice skating at The Rink at PPG Place, open November 20 through February 28; holiday displays in the windows of downtown businesses; after-dark light projections along 6th Street; and 16 life-size Santas to admire between Market Square and the Ice Rink.
How to Get There
The U.S. Steel Plaza is located in the Cultural District of Pittsburgh, where the Ohio River forks off into the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. You'll find it across from the First Lutheran Church and Mellon Green Park. It is accessible by either the red or blue train lines with the closest station being Steel Plaza Station, but if you're driving, take Exit 71A from I-376 East and continue onto Grant Street. Driving north on Grant Street, the plaza will be on your right.