A Taste of A Biltmore Christmas
By Debra Knapke
While I have visited the incredible Biltmore House and gardens in all four seasons, this year I had a chance to tour it in its “fifth season” (to borrow the phrase from Adelma Grenier Simmons in Herb Gardening in Five Seasons).
At the Biltmore House, Christmas could easily be called the fifth season. The lavish Christmas decorating traditions started when George and Edith Vanderbilt moved into their newly finished, 175,000-square-foot mansion and officially opened it on Christmas Eve 1895. Visitors who travel to Asheville, NC from early November to early January can view the opulent house lavishly adorned with lights, ornaments, garland, poinsettias and presents.
In November, my husband and I visited during the Christmas season display. This was the only season we have missed in our previous five visits. We have been in the gardens, on the roof, in the cellars and in the servants’ quarters, but this visit was not about understanding the house and the owners, but to see a grand display of holiday décor.
Approaching the house is always an exciting moment for me. This is time turning back. I imagine I’m in a gently swaying coach with clip-clopping horses prancing along the cobblestone pavement. In the capacious porte-cochere, I descend from the shiny black coach and am escorted by members of the gracious staff to a guestroom. My trunk is carefully unpacked by a quiet and efficient maid. There’s time to rest before dressing for dinner in something silken and flowing. There’s a king’s ransom in jewels around my neck and glittering at my ears.
Guests might gather in the Winter Garden (conservatory) which is in the center of the home. Here, you can see the impressive greenhouse dome that offered some of the best light for taking pictures. Note the stacks of presents on the floor. We speculated if they were real and might be for the staff.
The day was overcast and most of the interior light levels were low. I mentioned that it seemed darker than usual to a docent. His response was that this is one of compromises that must be made in a home that has been restored to much of its past glory. The textiles, furnishings, wallcoverings can all be degraded by too much light. It is expensive to replace flocked satin wall coverings that are only made by one firm in France; at great cost.
One of the most impressive spaces in the Biltmore is the Banquet Hall. Some of the trees, garlands and wreathes that adorn the house are artificial due to the length of the Biltmore Christmas season, but in this room with a seven-story high ceiling, the three two-story trees are freshly cut.
The opulence of the decorations of today is an exaggeration of what you might have seen if you were a guest of George and Edith Vanderbilt. I was told that there would have been one large tree in the Banquet Hall; not three.
The Salon was another gathering place for guests. There were amaryllis and poinsettias scattered throughout along with a humble, yet detailed, nativity scene.
When you visit the Biltmore be prepared to climb somestairs. There are elevators, but the wait is long. If you take the stairs you will be rewarded with a birds-eye view of the Banquet Hall. If you were Cornelia, daughter of George and Edith Vanderbilt, or a young guest, this is where you would have watched a party that you could not attend.
Below is an intimate dining set-up in George Vanderbilt’s bedroom, complete with another tree, candles and plants. Edith’s golden boudoir is close by, separated by a sitting room. This private part of the house would not normally be visited by quests.
Back down on the first floor there is the gallery off the Main Hall; another gathering area for guests. There were at least five large trees and several smaller ones. But what caught my eye was a vignette of family pictures and Santa on his sleigh. Like the nativity scene in the Salon, this captured the time of the Vanderbilts for me.
I wish I could give you a glimpse of the decorations in the library, but my pictures are truly dismal. The library holds George Vanderbilt’s personal collection of 22,000 volumes that span art, history, philosophy, travel, architecture, novels and more. Each book that he collected was sent to be rebound in leather before being added to the library. It is no surprise that the Biltmore curators keep the light levels quite low to protect the books and the opulent furnishings.
The wreathed twin lions, which flank the front steps, are a last glimpse of a Biltmore Christmas. There were moments when I was frustrated by the crowds, but there were also moments to get lost in the story of this home, and of a time gone by.