Penn Brewery set to kick off 2-day festival
Mary Wohleber recalls a cold December morning long ago when she awoke to find that St. Nikolaus was not happy with her that year.
Instead of a piece of fruit and a toy, she found a lump of coal and an onion in her stocking.
“I deserved it,” admits Wohleber, 90, of Troy Hill, of that unhappy St. Nikolaus Day during her childhood. “St. Nikolaus was doing that so you had time to shape up before Christmas. By the time Christmas came around, I was walking on water.”
The tradition of children finding surprises in their stockings or shoes has become so blended with the modern American Christmas celebration — and old St. Nikolaus so mixed with the Santa Claus myth — that it bears faint resemblance to its origins in St. Nikolaus Day, a Christian observance that falls on Dec. 6 and is celebrated in various styles around the world.
In German-speaking countries, it’s still a major time for children’s festivities. In Pittsburgh, the Penn Brewery on the North Side will kick off the holiday season on Friday and Saturday with its 16th annual St. Nikolaus festival. It’s billed as an “Old World” Christmas celebration.
“We wanted to make a Christmas bock beer and we needed a good name for it,” says Mary Beth Pastorius, recalling the origins of the brewery’s award-winning St. Nikolaus Bock Bier and the festival that began in 1989.
She and her husband, Tom, owners of Pennsylvania Brewing Co., also were looking for ways to highlight aspects of their German heritage and culture, which has deep roots in the historic Deutschtown neighborhood where the brewery is located, adjacent to Troy Hill.
Tom Pastorius is a descendant of Franz Daniel Pastorius, who in 1683 founded Germantown, the first German settlement in America, in the colony of Pennsylvania.
The two-day festival has been packed to capacity each year since it started, the proprietors said. The couple, native Pittsburghers, lived in Germany for 12 years and became more acquainted with St. Nikolaus Day celebrations during their sojourn there.
“We have a lot of fun with it. It always seems a really nice way to start December and get in the mood for Christmas,” Mary Beth Pastorius said.
The event includes German foods and beer with holiday music and carols by Heimat Klang, a brass band from Youngstown, Ohio, whose members dress in traditional German folk garb. The musicians strike up at 7 both nights. No reservations are accepted, although the owners hold one space, for St. Nikolaus himself, of course. His arrival, set for about 7 p.m. Friday, is the festival’s most anticipated moment.
“He sneaks into the building at the last minute. Nobody is allowed to look at him until he makes his grand entrance,” she said.
Wearing flowing robes and carrying a beer mug and a bunch of switches, St. Nikolaus — a tall, bearded and rather stern-looking figure, as tradition holds — strides to the bar for the ceremony of hammering a spigot into a wooden keg of St. Nikolaus Bock Bier. Tom Pastorius each year receives the privilege of holding the bung in place while the guest of honor swings at it with a wooden mallet about the size of a cantaloupe.
“Hopefully, St. Nikolaus didn’t have any of the St. Nikolaus beer beforehand, and he hits the spigot instead of my hand,” Tom Pastorius quipped.
After the dark brew is drafted into ceremonial mugs, St. Nikolaus and several hundred patrons toast the season. St. Nikolaus doesn’t make an appearance on the second night.
A North Side resident has played St. Nikolaus since the festival started. His identity is a secret, although some patrons probably have guessed who he is, Mary Beth Pastorius said. The man helped inspire the idea of the festival.
“His wife had gotten him a really great Father Christmas costume, and he suggested that we come in costume and tap the first keg of St. Nikolaus Bock Bier,” she recalled. “We said, ‘This is a really cool idea.’ ”
Heather Samuel, 28, of the North Side, who has gone to the festival for the past eight years, said it’s a fun way to get into the Christmas spirit.
Samuel, a Roman Catholic with German heritage on her mother’s side, said St. Nikolaus Day also has special religious meaning for her.
St. Nikolaus — also known as St. Nicholas and by other names, such as Sinterklass in the Netherlands and Flanders — actually was Nicholas of Myra, a clergyman and bishop who lived in 4th century Byzantine Lycia, or modern Turkey. He was known for secret gift-giving and acts of kindness. He is a Christian saint and the main inspiration for the character of Santa Claus.
When Samuel was growing up, the children in her family followed the tradition of placing their shoes outside the bedroom door on St. Nikolaus Eve, Dec. 5, in hopes the kindly saint would leave treats and gifts.
“I was always a good girl,” she said.