Christmas at Biltmore

Estate marks 40 years of celebrating the season –

As the last of the autumn leaves descend, the world prepares for the most enchanting holiday season of the year. It’s time once again to untangle the string lights, hang the stockings with care, and adorn your very own Christmas tree to shine as the centerpiece of your living room.

But if you want to venture out from your cozy, Christmas enclave this season, there is a lavish holiday getaway awaiting you at the upscale Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

From now until January 7, the 8,000-acre estate is running its annual Christmas special, featuring stunningly decorated trees, festive feasts, and classic holiday music and entertainment to create a top-of-the-line Christmas adventure for the entire family.

This year marks the 40th anniversary since the Biltmore began its now iconic Christmas-season celebration. This year’s theme has been crafted around the Biltmore’s infamous owners, The Vanderbilt family. George Washington Vanderbilt II first built a Châteauesque-style mansion in the 1890s, which is still the largest privately-owned house in the United States with 178,926 square feet of floor space. As the estate passed through the family, The Biltmore eventually became a luxurious vacation destination, known for its extraordinary Christmas decor and festivities.

“Now in its fourth decade, Christmas at Biltmore has become a beloved annual tradition for both staff and guests of Biltmore,” says a Biltmore spokesperson. “It is a holiday experience like no other, with more than 50 hand-decorated and styled Christmas trees gracing America’s Largest Home—including the traditional 35-foot Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall—plus hundreds of wreaths, thousands of lights, and miles of garland that extend across the estate.”

From humble beginnings in the 1970s, the annual Christmas festivities have evolved into a world-class attraction, drawing tourists from across the globe to marvel at the already prestigious resort that is transformed into a Christmas wonderland every year.

Surely the sight of the Biltmore all lit up for the holidays makes even Good Old Saint Nick’s North Pole Workshop pale in comparison.

The estate boasts over 135,000 decorative lights outdoors, with another 30,000 decorative lights and 150 candles inside.

But decking the halls of “America’s largest house,” doesn’t end with dazzling lights. This year, the staff of the Biltmore has tended to every nook and cranny of the enchanting estate with uniquely elegant holiday adornments.

According to the Biltmore, there are 55 decorated Christmas trees inside Biltmore House for the 2017 celebration. The crowning holiday jewel inside of the estate is the Vanderbilt traditional fresh 35-foot-tall Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall. It takes around 50 Biltmore staff members to carry in, raise, and secure the tree into place.

Beneath the towering tree adorned with 500 ornaments and 500 LED electric-style bulbs, sits 500 exquisitely-wrapped gift boxes. The front lawn boasts a lit 55-foot-tall Norway spruce surrounded by 20 other glowing evergreens. Adorned trees of all sizes can be found inside and outside of the estate, with the smallest tree sitting atop of a table in the Raphael Room. In addition to the Banquet Hall Christmas tree, over 13,000 ornaments decorate the various other trees throughout the Biltmore.

A total of 35 additional decorated Christmas trees are at other estate locations, including Antler Hill Village & Winery, The Inn on Biltmore Estate, Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate, and its restaurants.

About 360 wreaths and 1,000 handmade bows are hung inside the Biltmore House with an additional 2,000 across the estate. “Our wreaths are made of fresh white pine and Fraser fir, ornamented with golden arborvitae, holly, and other natural materials such as twigs and cones. Artificial bases are decorated with ornaments, berries, faux flowers, and ribbon,” explains a Biltmore official.

The extensive floral arrangements this year were designed to honor the tastes of the Biltmore’s founders.

According to The Biltmore, the floral staff has gathered inspiration from stories about George and Edith Vanderbilt welcoming friends and family to interpret this year’s theme of ‘A Vanderbilt Christmas.’ Classically elegant decorations in platinum, gold, silver, and jewel tones adorn Biltmore House and its 8,000-acre estate.

Across the estate, there are more than 1,000 traditional poinsettias, with more than 100 on display in the Biltmore’s Winter Garden. The estate is also lush with more than 1,000 amaryllises, Christmas cactus, orchids, peace lilies, cyclamen, begonias, and kalanchoe.

The Christmas ambiance is made complete with elaborate garland creations strung across the Biltmore.

“There are 100 orbs made of fresh white pine and Fraser fir or dried and faux materials decorating the estate…We use 7,527 feet of fresh evergreen garlands during the season, made of mixed white pine and Fraser fir. The garlands are replaced weekly to maintain a fresh look and fragrance for our guests. Faux garlands add another 1,200 feet in Biltmore House and around 1,500 feet in other areas,” said a Biltmore spokesperson.

Cathy Barnhardt, the retired floral displays manager, came aboard 40 years ago, tasked with the job of “doing Christmas” each season. Back then, the Christmas adornments were comprised of just five trees inside the Biltmore House.

“I went to work at Biltmore straight out of college, and I didn’t know much about Christmas decorating or Gilded Age décor,” says Barnhardt in a Biltmore article. “For my first Christmas here, my mom and I sat at a card table and made paper ornaments to hang on the trees!” Under her leadership, Christmas at the Biltmore grew from a quaint novelty event each year and blossomed into a luxurious marvel that has attracted global recognition.

When Barnhardt started her career at Biltmore, there was a total of just 50 employees. Now, there are more than 2,000. By the end of her career, she oversaw a team of seven full-time designers and ten reserve staff members, who now carry on decking The Biltmore’s halls every Christmas.

As her grand finale, Barnhardt has paid homage to the Vanderbilts with her final Christmas season designs.

“As a child growing up in New York, George Vanderbilt loved Christmas, and his journals reflect how his holidays were centered around traditions and family,” she says. “And the fact he chose to open Biltmore to family at Christmas 1895, even though the house wasn’t completely finished, tells us how much he loved this season.”

The use of natural light during the Biltmore’s Candlelight Christmas Evenings, a guest favorite, is meant to hearken back to the estate’s early history.

According to The Biltmore, Candlelight Christmas Evenings allow guests to step back in time, experiencing the estate more like Vanderbilt’s guests did that first Christmas Eve 1895.

Sadly, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil, owner of The Biltmore Company, died in October of this year at the age of 89.

“William A.V. Cecil was the youngest son of Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, and the grandson of George W. Vanderbilt III, who built Biltmore House in the 1890s as the largest privately owned home in America,” read a Biltmore statement on Cecil’s passing. “Mr. Cecil was born August 17, 1928, at his family home in Asheville. Educated in England and Switzerland, he served in the British Navy near the end of World War II. After the war, he attended Harvard University and graduated in 1952. He pursued a career in finance, where he served as a representative of Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, and later as an officer with Chase’s international department based in Washington, D.C. In 1957, he married Mary ‘Mimi’ Ryan, a lawyer with the Wall Street firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. In 1960, the Cecils moved to Asheville with the intention of preserving Biltmore by growing tourism to the region.”

Cecil’s favorite saying was, “We don’t preserve Biltmore to make a profit. We make a profit to preserve Biltmore.”

When Cecil took over The Biltmore, he brought a broader vision to benefit more than just the estate itself.

“His vision for the estate extended beyond its gates to encompass North Carolina and the country, and he worked the next 35 years to position Biltmore as a unique national treasure and Asheville as a ‘must-see’ destination,” praised one Biltmore writer.

The Biltmore was first opened to the public, by Cecil’s parents, in 1930, but the Vanderbilt family didn’t turn a profit off the estate back then. For his part, Cecil embarked on an uphill climb to establish the Biltmore as the premier vacation locale of the Southeast.

After Cecil retired in the mid-1990s, he expressed this hope for The Biltmore’s future:

“I hope Biltmore Estate will continue to give its guests one of America’s most gratifying cultural and aesthetic experiences for years to come. I also hope that the commitment to preserving the great natural beauty that graces Biltmore is held sacred. The estate has given my family great personal and professional satisfaction over the years, and it has been my pleasure and my honor to share her. Long may the ‘Lady on the Hill’ stand as a symbol of vision, inspiration, and imagination.”

This holiday season, make arrangements to visit the immaculately-preserved estate, which is one of the few remaining testaments to the Gilded Age, rich with history, elegance, and for a short time, ample Christmas spirit. To find out more information, visit


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