Nationality Rooms Open House presents holiday traditions and culture


Youtube Screenshot

A video titled “Victorian English Christmas Village” posted on Nationality Rooms Programs’ Youtube channel and the Nationality Rooms website for the Virtual Holiday Open House.

By Betul Tuncer, Senior Staff Writer

A video presentation on the story of “La Befana” from the Italian room committee is just one of the many virtual exhibitions of cultural dances, holiday recipes, crafts and winter traditions from the 33 Nationality Room committees at this week’s 30th annual Holiday Open House. 

The Italian room committee, chaired by Lina Insana, chose to represent their culture through a reading of Gianni Rodari’s poem “Voglio fare un regalo alla Befana,” which translates to “I’d like to give a present to La Befana.” Insana said the story of “La Befana” is important to Italians’ celebration of the Epiphany, a Jan. 6 holiday that commemorates the end of the Christmas period and the presentation of the infant Jesus to the three wise men. 

“This year, we focused on the figure of ‘La Befana,’ the old woman who delivers presents to Italian children at the Epiphany … since one of the Italian room’s most beloved decorations is a fabric ‘Befana’ figure,” Insana, an Italian professor, said.

The themes for this year’s event are winter holiday traditions, cultural performances, traditional holiday crafts, ornamentation and winter and holiday recipes. A series of video presentations and tours for the weeklong open house are available Sunday through Saturday through the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs’ website. 

The open house will end with the Greek Christmas Trivia Weekend Event this weekend, in which attendees can purchase tickets to test their knowledge on Greek culture and compete for traditional Greek olive oil. 

Other room committees are also participating in this year’s events and activities, including a video presentation on Yugoslav holiday traditions, cooking video on Kugelis — a traditional Lithuanian potato dish — and several other educational and cultural videos. Kati Csoman, director of the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs, said the open house will also include dance and musical performances from the cultures of Armenia, India, Japan, Scotland, Switzerland and Syria-Lebanon.

The Holiday Open House is traditionally held on the first Sunday of December and known to have attracted more than 3,000 visitors, according to Csoman. Due to COVID-19 safety measures and the University’s current operational status, the event is virtual this year, as was the case last year. Csoman said the virtual aspect has some limitations to the experience of the event in that people won’t get to be in the physical rooms and be together with others. 

“Of course, everyone longs for the opportunity to come together in person in such an inspiring space as the Cathedral of Learning and to view the rooms decorated for the season,” Csoman said. “We also miss the music and sound of laughter and joy as people make new friends and visit with old acquaintances.  I know many of us — especially me — miss the delicious food and baked goods representing many different cultures.”

Along with the video presentations by the various committees, the open house will also feature virtual tours by Quo Vadis, the Nationality Room student tour guides. 

Quo Vadis, one of the oldest clubs on campus, aims to promote cultural understanding through their Nationality Room tours, according to Zach Hartman, president of Quo Vadis. 

Hartman, a senior computer engineering and classical civilizations major, said the club spent a lot of time last fall preparing the video tours in a way that showcased the rooms as best as possible, while also highlighting the cultural traditions of each nationality. 

“Quo Vadis has video presentations in each room available that anyone in the public can watch because it’s an open house and we filmed those last fall,” Hartman said. “It was really exciting actually because it’s like a new take on giving tours that we hadn’t done before.”

Hartman said although there are limitations to the virtual event, one benefit is that people all over the world are able to watch the video tours and presentations, including the people who live in the countries of the represented rooms. 

Besides the video tours, Pitt’s Office of Special Events invited Quo Vadis to present virtual book readings where they read their favorite childhood holiday stories, according to Hartman. 

Csoman said she encourages families to participate in the virtual book reading series as they showcase the “diverse offerings of winter.”

“From stories about Abuelas and tamales, to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, to the Winter Solstice and silly snowmen, and of course, to St. Nick,” Csoman said. “Each story is read by a different member of the University of Pittsburgh and the videos are hosted on our YouTube channel: Kids Clubhouse Storytime.

Hartman said he hopes events like the open house will allow specifically Pitt students to better appreciate the Nationality Rooms and gain more understanding about the cultures that the rooms aim to represent. Students and others in Oakland can attend in-person holiday season tours given by Quo Vadis until Dec. 15. 

“I think the Nationality Rooms are underappreciated,” Hartman said. “They are really special spaces that we say are museum quality, and they really are, because there are so many artifacts in them and you can learn so much about the world without ever leaving one building.”