Floral staffers ready each ornament for display.
A magnificent Victorian picture-postcard come to life, Biltmore House opens its doors, and a gracious hostess beckons me in from the cold night air. As I step into the entry, I hear carols being sung and smell fresh greenery. Candles bathe the 1895 home of George and Edith Vanderbilt in a warm glow, and at a distance I see a tree so large and bright, I've only imagined it in my dreams. "Welcome to Biltmore," says the smiling hostess.
I wondered what it takes to create this fairy-tale Christmas each year, so the kind staff invited me back for one heck of a sleigh ride to find out. Join us as we peek behind the velvet ropes to see what goes into the massive planning and execution of dressing up this Asheville, North Carolina, mansion for the holiday season.
O Christmas Tree--Prologue
The floral staff, headed by Cathy Barnhardt, begins the planning process in January. The search for the perfect tree for the Banquet Hall is no walk in the park. "The really big ones--more than 30 feet in height--are hard to find," she says. "We always use a Fraser fir. They hold their needles. We have a Fraser finder, George Andrews, who has spent the past 29 years searching for our trees."
Another daunting task for the staff is to find two trees, because the first one is replaced in early December. "We start at 4 a.m.," says Cathy."We have the first one down and the second one decorated by that evening."
Deck the Halls
Eleven floral staffers oversee two large warehouses that hold 500 boxes of ornaments, decorations, and other holiday items used each year at Biltmore Estate. But every year the employees search out more.
In August, the floral staff fans out along the property, seeking greenery and flowers that become garlands and arrangements for the upcoming holiday decorations--three months away. After the cutting is done, the flower ladies negotiate with one another for the five rooms each chooses to decorate for Christmas.
"Then we go through the boxes of ornaments and pick out what we want for trees that will be in the rooms we decorate," says Jennifer Small, a floral staffer.
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
Activity picks up noticeably in September all across the 8,000 acres of Biltmore Estate. A caravan of boxed decorations begins to make its way into the four-story manor.
Poinsettias that came as rooted slips in July continue to grow in the Conservatory. More than 700 plants receive 12 hours of sunlight and 12 hours of darkness, readying them for their coming-out party in November.
Bernard Delille, the French wine master, begins overseeing the harvest of grapes that will become Biltmore's Christmas wine. "We do a special bottle each year with a holiday label," says Bernard. At $10.99, it makes a wonderful gift. Ten people work in the winery, and seven more tend to the vineyard.