Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
On Christmas Day in 1895, George Washington Vanderbilt welcomed the first guests to his new country estate.
But Biltmore wasn’t just any residence: at 250 rooms and 175,000 square feet, the Richard Morris Hunt-designed mansion was the largest house in America.
“Christmas Eve saw a gathering of family and friends,” says Denise Kiernan, author of The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home. “Everybody was excited that people were coming down from New York City to celebrate. But parts of the house were still unfinished—like the library and the music room. There was an organ loft with an unfinished organ! The house nevertheless made a spectacular impression.”
Among the decorations was a 40-foot-tall tree in the Banquet Hall, lit by 500 electric lights. “When we think of Christmas trees of the 19th century, candles usually come to mind,” says Lizzie Borchers, floral manager of Biltmore. “But, always wanting the best, George was very proud to have electric light illuminating his tree.”
While Christmas Eve was a more intimate affair, in her book Kiernan writes that George Vanderbilt invited over 200 of the estate’s employees and their families to the house on Christmas Day to celebrate and receive presents.
Over 120 years later, Christmas is still an extravagant affair at Biltmore.
A team of 21 designers works to execute an annual design scheme unified around a theme—this year’s is “Vanderbilt family Christmas.” The theme draws upon elements of sporting and recreation that would have been enjoyed during the Gilded Age at the home.
“Every room ends up having its own mini-theme,” says Borchers. “The decorations in the library are inspired by travel books. The tapestry gallery, lined with multiple 14-foot-tall trees, features a lot of branches and gilded turkey features.”
The entire decorative scheme takes about a month to execute and begins in early October to ready the mansion for early November.
Beginning around 6 a.m., the designers bring in the various pieces needed to transform the Biltmore into the best holiday version of itself. “Sometimes we need to enlist the help of museum services,” says Borchers. “With all of the antique furniture that once belonged to the Vanderbilts, if we need to move a piece, it’s not as simple as scooting a chair to the side.”
The trimmings include 55 trees (well, 55 interior trees—Borchers estimates around 100 are used in total, if you include the grounds), 490 wreaths, and literally miles of garland.
“We use fresh garland on the main staircase, which we swap out every week. By the end of the season, we’ve used about 8,000 feet of garland,” estimates Borchers.
But just like when George Vanderbilt called Biltmore home, the showstopper is the banquet hall tree—the only fresh tree in the house. It is still lit with 500 Edison bulbs.
“The same family has been providing Biltmore with Banquet Hall trees for at least 30 years,” says Borchers, who began to scout for the tree in July. The 40-foot Fraser Fur is actually one of two banquet hall trees that are selected every year. Designers swap the tree out halfway through the season to keep it looking fresh.
We spoke with Borchers the day after the 4 a.m swap happened.
“It takes close to eight hours; we were done by 11:30 that morning,” says Borchers. “And because you can’t bring a crane into Biltmore house, the tree has to be brought in by hand. It took about 50 members of Biltmore staff to carry the tree into the hall. It must weigh around 3,000 pounds.”
It is secured in place with a custom-made stand. The tree is raised with a pulley system through the organ loft (unlike when George Vanderbilt opened the house in 1895, the organ loft is now finished) and gets support from multiple wooden braces. It’s then anchored in place with two-inch rope that is wound through the organ loft and around numerous doorways. “That tree is not going anywhere,” says Borchers. “We’re not chancing it!”
The decorations on the tree are inspired by tapestries in the room. The color scheme is based on French blue and platinum—a first for the banquet hall tree, which is apparently a fan-favorite of visitors this year.
“We have received so many compliments on how the tree echoes the tapestries—it’s currently my favorite room,” says Borchers.
It was in the banquet hall that the first Christmas dinner at Biltmore was served.
“George’s niece, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, kept a book where she recorded dinners,” says Kiernan. “There’s one page where she drew a long table and labeled the seating arrangements for Christmas dinner of 1895 at her uncle’s house. It wasn’t an overly extravagant dinner—about six courses or so. The head of the table had George, George’s mother, and Cornelius Vaderbilt, George’s brother.”
While tree may stand as a backdrop to the table where George and his family once dined together, it will have a life beyond Biltmore. The banquet hall trees will be turned into lumber that will then be donated to Habitat for Humanity to build homes.
The decorations are only going to be up for a few more weeks—about as long as it takes to dismantle them all and transport them to an off-site storage unit until next year.
And as for next year, well, that’s as good as planned.
“We have the next few years worth of themes decided upon—it really does take all year to plan Christmas here,” says Borchers. “We even get a head start when we’re taking down the decorations. Some designers will look and say ‘Oh! That ornament will be perfect for my room next year,’ so we’ll crate it and label it as such. We have to stay ahead as much as we can.”