An elderly couple pauses in front of a decorative tree in the study, the man supporting his wife by her elbow while she points at a glass ornament. In the kitchen, a child squeals with delight as she peers at the large gingerbread house lined with gumdrops. And in the banquet hall, guests gaze up at the giant 35-foot tall Fraser fir, their dwarfed cures dotting the area below.
If this scene appears picture perfect, that’s because it is. Each year, thousands travel to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, for their own slice of this storybook experience. A time- honored tradition, Christmas at Biltmore dates back to December 24, 1895, when George Vanderbilt hosted friends and family to his magnificent mansion for the very first time. More than 100 years later, guests continue to visit the winter wonderland, which boasts more than 70 decorated Christmas trees, miles of fresh garland curling around banisters and mantles, and numerous red and white poinsettias adorning the rooms and Winter Garden.
House Beautiful // Since the Vanderbilts opened their home on Christmas Eve 1895, the Biltmore Estate has welcomed guests each year to its Christmas grandeur of greenery, decorations, and holiday activities.
Planning for such an event requires much time and attention. According to Cathy Barnhardt, floral displays manager at the Biltmore, initial discussions begin a year in advance, starting with the critique of the current year’s display. The following months include storyboarding ideas with the floral team, purchasing decorations, and placing orders for greenery. Finally, the holiday magic comes to life in October, as the team spends the entire month arranging decorations.
This year’s theme “Hearth and Home,” a nod to the Vanderbilt family’s hospitality, promises a fresh perspective on the estate’s many replaces and mantles. For the chance to catch these replaces aglow, visit during a Candlelight Christmas Evening, when choirs and ensembles fill the house with the sound of the season, and the front lawn of the Biltmore is lit with luminaries and more than 45,000 lights.
Today’s holiday season brings hustle and bustle, days filled with mall shopping and Amazon ordering. Perhaps this is why Christmas at Biltmore continues to be one of the most popular holiday season activities. While the world goes nonstop, the Biltmore gives guests comfort and serenity of a simpler time. A time when meticulous attention was paid to planning the dinner menu and hallways were filled with the squeals of children. A time when the smell of cinnamon wafting from the kitchen meant breakfast was on its way. A time when time stops, allowing a moment to pause, take a deep breath, and enjoy the season.
Daytime tours: November 4, 2016–January 8, 2017; Candlelight Evenings: November 4, 2016–January 7, 2017. Tickets include tours of Biltmore House, the gardens, and Antler Hill Village.
The Biltmore Estate houses archives detailing the lives of George and Edith Vanderbilt, their daughter Cornelia, and many of their friends and family. One of these documents is the menu for the 1904 Christmas luncheon and New Year’s Day.
LeeAnn Donnelly, a public relations representative at the Biltmore Estate, writes that the Christmas and New Year’s meals are “not the most elaborate meals included in the book.” For instance,
the Christmas luncheon begins with clear broth, followed by broiled oysters. The entrée was venison steak, potatoes, string beans, and cauliflower.
Christmas dinner featured a main course of roasted turkey and cranberries, potatoes, peas, and celery. According to Donnelly, turkey and dressing was George Vanderbilt’s favorite meal, and the family ate turkey every three days on average.