The war on Sparkle Season: A brief history of Pittsburgh’s religious holiday displays

There once was a Nativity scene inside the county courthouse.

The Pittsburgh Crèche at the US Steel Tower Plaza on Grant Street.

The Pittsburgh Crèche at the US Steel Tower Plaza on Grant Street.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

The holiday season is inescapable Downtown.

Christmas trees everywhere.

Wreaths on lampposts, hung before Halloween.

A life-sized baby Jesus at Grant Street and Seventh Avenue.

Yes, there’s a massive Nativity scene Downtown that features Mary, Joseph, various animals and, of course, the Christ child in a manger.

It’s called the Pittsburgh Crèche, and it’s the only “authorized replica” of the Vatican’s Nativity scene in the world, according to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. 

The crèche is set up annually on the privately owned U.S. Steel Tower plaza. It landed there in 1999 following years of challenges to Nativity scenes in the City of Pittsburgh.

In 1986, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Greater Pittsburgh Chapter sued Allegheny County over two displays: a Nativity scene inside the county courthouse and menorah, paired with a Christmas tree, outside the City-County building.

“It is an expression of religious freedom, not as a form of devotion or indoctrination to promote a particular religion,” diocese spokesperson Rev. Ronald Lengwin said of the crèche to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in December 1986. “Government must not endorse religion, but neither must it disapprove it.”

Three years later, in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.

Roslyn M. Litman, a trailblazing attorney who died this fall, argued on behalf of the ACLU and told the justices, “This is promotion. This is not neutrality. This is favoritism.”

Peter Buscemi, the attorney for the county, said the displays were acceptable as part of the “context of the holiday season.”

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ACLU, 5-4, regarding the Nativity scene and against the ACLU, 6-3, regarding the menorah. Of the crèche, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the majority:

There is no doubt, of course, that the creche itself is capable of communicating a religious message. Indeed, the creche in this lawsuit uses words, as well as the picture of the nativity scene, to make its religious meaning unmistakably clear. “Glory to God in the Highest!” says the angel in the creche — Glory to God because of the birth of Jesus. This praise to God in Christian terms is indisputably religious — indeed sectarian — just as it is when said in the Gospel or in a church service.

Several years elapsed before a coalition of local Christian church leaders decided in 1996 to erect a Nativity scene on city-owned land in Gateway Center as part of a five-week Christmas festival.

To County Commissioner Larry Dunn, even this was an unacceptable concession in the war on Christmas. In November 1996, Dunn told the Post-Gazette he believed the crèche could be displayed in the courtyard of the county courthouse “because that location is a public forum.”

“I am very disappointed on behalf of the hundreds of citizens who wrote or called my office in the hopes of celebrating Christmas or Hanukah instead of Sparkle Season.”

Dunn wasn’t making up Sparkle Season.

It was a seemingly harmless yet largely hated holiday theme used by the Downtown Partnership between 1994 and 2002.

Or as Crumbfish defined it for Urban Dictionary in 2003:

Pittsburgh PA’s way of denouncing Christ’s birth and Christmas, in the name of political correctness. Proof that city officials have their heads up their asses!

It’s CHRISTMAS, NOT sparkle season!

Pittsburgh’s city officials didn’t like Jesus so they changed the name of his birthday from Christmas to “sparkle season”. God got so pissed when they did this, he ordered thousands of it’s citizens to leave the town… that they did! God then changed the name of Pittsburgh, to Pitsburgh, because he thought the town was the pits!

Fox News’ Megyn Kelly once called it Sparkle Day.