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Christmas at Biltmore

Christmas at Biltmore is for all the senses. Just ask Cathy Barnhardt, floral display manager of the Biltmore House. She should know because for the past 34 years Barnhardt has helped deck the halls at Biltmore. Growing up in Asheville, she dreamt of returning to Biltmore after college and working in its gardens. Her dream came true when she got her first job working in the Greenhouse and the English Walled Garden. That year she was asked, along with the curator and the house manager, to decorate the Biltmore for the holidays. “I have been involved with Christmas at the Biltmore since its infancy,” she said.

This year, as for each Christmas, when visitors enter at the grand hallway they will return to an era when horse drawn carriages brought friends and family from the train station to visit the Vanderbilts. Because of fire codes, some of the decoration is artificial, but the majority is real. Fresh evergreen garlands will be hanging from fireplaces, rafters and stair railings, candles will be in the windows, and the house will be adorned with fifty-seven trees all decorated in the Gilded Style. The Banquet Hall will feature a 34-feet-tall tree. “Once you put a tree of that size up then the whole house begins to smell like Christmas,” Barnhardt said.

Barnhardt has used her knowledge of historical gardens and her research of the era to make sure the Biltmore house is decorated in a way that would please George and Edith Vanderbilt. “When we first began decorating the house for Christmas we got in touch with the other Vanderbilt homes to see what type of decorations they knew had been used. There were no photographs of the home taken during the holidays and no original ornaments exist, only written descriptions of some decorations,” said Barnhardt. “But we have stayed true to creating an authentic feel for the era.”

Within the extensive research on Christmas at the Biltmore, which included some oral histories, Barnhardt said what truly inspires the festive air around the estate is the love the family obviously had for the holidays. George Vanderbilt chose to have his grand house warming for the estate on Christmas Eve in 1895. He opened the doors to family and friends who made the long trip to the North Carolina Mountains by train, many staying for several weeks.

The Vanderbilts extended their Christmas joy beyond their family and friends, making sure each year that their staff had a wonderful holiday, too. “We have receipts from Mrs. Vanderbilt from F.A.O. Schwartz toy store in New York where she bought jumping jacks, balls, and wagons for the staff’s children. There are also ledgers showing where she notes the gifts she bought each child so she would not duplicate the gift the next year. There are also receipts from local Asheville merchants showing where she bought ice cream, candy, and fresh fruit for the staff and family party. Fresh fruit was a huge treat in the mountains during the winter months. There is a newspaper account that states wagon loads of holly and barrels of mistletoe were being dropped off to families that lived and worked on the estate,” said Barnhardt.

Keeping with the tradition of wagons of holly and barrels of mistletoe, you will find plenty of both when you visit the Biltmore. Each year there is a different theme and this year it is “Christmas from Around the World”, with rooms depicting countries the Vanderbilts visited. The entry hall is decorated like an English Country house, heavily draped with garlands of greenery and holly and with mistletoe strategically placed throughout. Decorations are not just put anywhere on the trees (approximately 25,000 to 30,000 decorations are used in all); Barnhardt and her crew have a system. The shiny bright solid ornaments that can catch the sparkle from the lights are put on the inside of the tree while the more elaborate ornaments are hung nearer the front. “We are also featuring Santa Claus or the gift bearer of each country,” said Barnhardt. The Morning Salon is decorated in the French Country Style accented with natural elements. Grapevine is entwined through all of the garlands and the gift bearer is Père Noël, who is carrying a grape harvesting basket. Germany is featured in the very masculine billiard room, where Father Christmas is the featured gift bearer. Hand-blown German ornaments stand out on this tree. Barnhardt admits these are her favorite ornaments. “There is just something about the colors; every year I look forward to seeing them again,” she said.

All this Christmas magic does not leap into place overnight. The decorating starts on the top floors in mid-October and by the first of November the whole house has been transformed into its grand splendor ready for guests, just as the Vanderbilts would have wanted it — then it has to be maintained. “Once the decorating is completed, we don’t get to rest and say it’s all done. The live greenery roping is replaced weekly, early in the morning, and the poinsettias are replenished in the middle of the holiday season. We even take down the Banquet Hall tree and replace it. We want to make sure those who come at the end of the season have the same experience as those in the middle of the season,” said Barnhardt.

A trip to Fayetteville from Asheville will take about six hours, so planning to spend the night might be the best idea. If you do decide to spend the night, then you should consider taking in the Candlelight Christmas Evening, where hundreds of Christmas candles glisten, bringing a warm glow to the house and to your senses, too.

“Candlelight gives the mansion a whole different feel,” said Barnhardt. “The lit fireplaces and candles add to the feeling of the era; guests will hear choirs or a harp playing while walking through the house,” she added. On weekends Santa visits the estate and children can tell him their wishes while visiting the village. And if you would like to pick up some Christmas spirits for your holiday, then a tour through the winery should also be part of your visit.

Barnhardt said that planning for the next year starts while the Biltmore house is completely decorated. “We take a walk through and take notes on what we can change for the next year, because we do try to keep things fresh and different each year. We don’t just cover up artificial trees completely decorated and put them in the attic until next year,” she laughed. “We take each and every decoration down and pack it away.”

This may be the year to pack up the family and head to one of the grandest homes in America for the holidays. Let yourself be full of wonder as you did when you were a child. With its thousands of ornaments and lights, and many yards of ribbon, you may feel as if George and Edith Vanderbilt will greet you in the grand hallway and offer you some hot cider while they usher you into the banquet hall, where all your senses will fill with the spirit of Christmas. For more information go to Biltmore.com/visit/calendar/Christmas.