For two months every year, America’s largest and grandest home becomes a palatial, sparkling showcase of all things Christmas: dozens of trees decked in shimmering lights and hand-crafted ornaments, hundreds of feet of redolent garland wrapped thickly around banisters and door frames and chandeliers, bright pops of fresh holly and poinsettias, and softly glimmering candles that cast a warm glow across visitor’s faces. Biltmore is our greatest destination, but during the holidays it becomes so much more as it transforms into a sparkling harbor of the season.
Turning the Southern palace into a winter wonderland is no easy feat; in fact, the transformation involves four weeks of initial decorating, near-constant upkeep through the holiday months, and seven full-time designers supplemented with passionate seasonal help. And at the forefront of it all you’ll find Cathy Barnhardt, Biltmore’s Floral Displays Manager and progenitor and manager of Christmas at Biltmore.
When Barnhardt began her work in the greenhouses of Biltmore nearly 40 years ago, Christmas at Biltmore was practically nonexistent; the estate had only been open through the holidays for a few years and they decorated sparsely with a couple trees and ornaments in the house’s main rooms. When Barnhardt’s boss instructed her to “do Christmas,” she never envisioned the process to come.
Today, planning and executing Christmas at Biltmore is a year-round process. During the holiday season, Barnhardt and her team begin planning the season to come, walking through current displays and tossing around ideas, contemplating and conceptualizing extensive plans over a year in advance. Designers work through the summer crafting decorations for the Christmas to come. And when October hits, the season truly begins as the home undergoes its annual metamorphosis.
“We decorate in layers,” Barnhardt explains as we step through a throng of gape-mouthed tourists who stand distracted by the already stunning Christmas displays. Barnhardt walks through the hallowed halls of the historical abode with homey confidence, greeting every employee with a personal quip and introducing her designers with sweet personableness. It’s obvious that this is her home.
Between salutations, Barnhardt delves deeper into the process of transforming Biltmore. The layers she referenced begin outside of Biltmore, in their storage space. “We like to say we’ve got the biggest attic,” she says with a signature chuckle. Salvageable artificial trees are brought out of storage, fluffed and set in dozens of the property’s rooms. Designers begin upstairs, decorating their favorite rooms in special themed decor.
The designs of each year’s decorations have two driving factors. First, the theme of that year’s Christmas at Biltmore; this year’s theme, Hearth and Home, draws inspiration from the renowned hospitality of the Vanderbilt family. As one of America’s richest and most generous families, the Vanderbilts would host gatherings for friends and employees alike, especially during the holidays, and Hearth and Home is designed to capture the very essence of their kindnesses.
The second factor of the decorations hail from other factors of the family’s history. Each room has a motif that ties into the overarching theme and a story from the Vanderbilt’s past. This year, for example, the breakfast room draws inspiration from Edith Vanderbilt’s Bohemian leanings; decked in bright fuchsias and glimmering beads, chromatic lamps and rich colors, the seasonal decor taps into Edith’s fun-loving ways while still maintaining a traditional holiday ambiance. Because of the house’s Gilded Age design and extensive history, designers are able to pull inspiration from multiple decades, including the sedate decor of its Victorian beginnings and the more florid, Bohemian flounce of later decades.
The decorations throughout Biltmore hearken back to memories of the family that made this house home so long ago. In George’s room you’ll find two blue spruces in honor of one of those sweet familial memories. One of his woodworkers who lived on the property sent his twin sons into the woods around the estate to find a tree; when the boys stumbled upon the perfect, manicured form of a blue spruce, they proudly chopped the tree and carted it home. The father immediately recognized the tree not as a wild seedling but a cultivated piece of the Vanderbilts’ land. When he brought his two guilty sons before the master of the home, rather than offer reprimand or reproach, George merely laughed and instructed the young’uns to enjoy the tree. It’s the kindness and hospitality of the Vanderbilts, remembered through stories like this, that inspire Christmas at Biltmore and especially this year’s Hearth and Home.
At the forefront of the Christmas at Biltmore celebration is that sense of welcoming hospitality—especially for the estate’s modern-day guests. “We love that our guests get to see something a little different every year,” Barnhardt explains, “and we still get to create the feel of an era.” Visitors can marvel at intricate, hand-decorated displays year after year and always experience a completely unique version of Christmas at Biltmore. And even beyond its visitors, Biltmore embodies that generosity through the community by donating lightly-worn decorations to the local Habitat for Humanity, sagging poinsettias to employees and nearby churches, and extraneous ribbons and artificial flowers to neighborhood nursing homes for use in craft projects.
Though this year’s motif may be Hearth and Home, its equally applicable to Christmas at Biltmore as a whole. Here, the true meaning of the holidays—of giving and sharing, of sparkling beauty and kindness that sparkles just as brightly—finds life.