photograph by Charles Harris

On shelves stacked to the workshop’s high ceiling, boxes affixed with a sample sprig of their contents are hand-lettered: “golden pear stems and leaves”, “holly variegated”, “red pepper berry.” One designer, her supplies unpacked and ready, covers poultry netting with quilt batting to create hills and dales of snow. Another designer finishes a dollhouse by adding stepping stones cut from cereal box cardboard. Someone else rolls out lengths of Volara, an archival-quality protective foam impervious to water. Electrical cords dangle overhead, keeping pans of adhesive liquefied. “When you smell hot glue, Christmas is coming!” Cathy Barnhardt, Biltmore’s floral displays manager, says cheerfully.

It’s July 7. And not a day too soon to prepare for Biltmore’s high holiday: There are five floors of rooms to transform and 32 fireplace mantels to make festive. But there are rules to follow, too: Not a single nail can go into any door frame, molding, or other historic woodwork. And decorations must be as elegant and creative as what the Vanderbilts themselves would have used — had glue guns been handy in 1895.

At Biltmore Estate, Christmas is a big production. As big as the 35-foot tree in the Banquet Hall, on which wrapped presents are hung — just like the “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” lyric goes — along with hundreds of lights and balls. From November to January, some 300,000 visitors arrive to take in all this wonder. Real devotees even call in the middle of the summer to request their passes for the tree-raising. The dizzying preparations continue through the summer heat and end just before the fall chill — all of it orchestrated by Cathy, a 62-year-old grandmother who has worked at Biltmore for 40 years.

The two-story library holds 10,296 books — and yards of holiday garland that’s replaced weekly. photograph by Charles Harris

This Christmas is her last hurrah before retirement, a decision that adds a touch of poignancy to every garland she straightens and bow she ties. “I love the people I work with so much,” she says, her voice softening with emotion. “But it’s time to spend time with my other love: my family and grandchildren.” This is perhaps not the best moment to pause and reflect, given all the wreaths to be gilded and ornaments to be ordered or unpacked. Certainly Cathy knows better than anyone that Christmas takes all year to get just right.

• • •
 

There was never a time when Cathy, an Asheville native, didn’t want to work at Biltmore. Armed with degrees in art history, horticulture, and landscape design from the University of Tennessee, she came home, went to work in a local flower shop, and waited. Within a year, she was working in the Biltmore greenhouse. That first year, in 1977, the estate manager came to her and said, simply, “Do Christmas.” (Prior to that — and incredible to imagine today — the estate closed for the month of December.) Cathy decorated five trees that first year. Today, her full-time staff of eight decorates 65 in the house.

Cathy Barnhardt oversaw decorating details at Biltmore for 40 years. photograph by Jack Sorokin

Now, as then, one question guides every decision that they make: What would George do? George being Mr. Vanderbilt, of course. Everything about Christmas at Biltmore is inspired by the Christmas of 1895, when George gave a party for his family and friends and presented his beautiful mansion to the public.

We know about the enormous Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall — hung with the 500 wrapped gifts and 500 lights — not from faded photographs, but from the extensive written documentation of the event. Visual evidence isn’t necessary when you have all of the Vanderbilts’ personal papers and documents to act as a blueprint for the decorating process. Biltmore’s archivists assist Cathy in being “appropriate,” she says. In this case, “appropriate,” for 1895, is using “festoons” — strings of 25 or so electric lights — instead of tree candles. “Appropriate” also means that, unlike the tree you buy at your local lot, today’s Banquet Hall tree isn’t “sheared” — a process that makes evergreens look thicker, fuller, and more conical. Rather, it’s naturally shaped, as it grows. If you look at Christmas trees from the 19th century, Cathy says, you’ll see “gappy holes.”

Biltmore’s trees boast the same period imperfections, but even Cathy will admit that authenticity has its limits: No Yuletide flourish is worth jeopardizing the priceless furniture, paintings, carpets, and objects in the house. “When I hire a new staff member, my first concern is protecting the Biltmore House and its collection,” Cathy says. Even when carrying a ladder through the house, there is always a person on either side to make sure that wall coverings, door moldings, and ceilings aren’t scratched. Conservators are on hand at every step of the process to advise on placement, repairs, and, well, house rules.

Imagine the challenge: The headache of getting your own tree to stand up straight in its rusty stand doesn’t seem so daunting now, does it?

• • •
 

From the winery to the maids’ quarters, all of the decorations fit an annual theme, selected a year in advance by the Biltmore team and inspired by stories from the Vanderbilts’ era. “The Gilded Age,” “A Victorian Christmas,” “Hearth and Home” — all have been interpreted by Cathy and her designers. Each designer is responsible for five areas, plus an ancillary area, like the inn or ticketing center. Something of a bidding war takes place as designers jockey for room assignments — from the Billiard Room to the Tapestry Gallery — and favorite materials. “My job,” Cathy says, “is to get designers inspired by the theme and give them initial direction on the look that we want to accomplish.”

Negotiations come into play if two designers want, say, the same pheasant feathers or silvery teardrop bauble for their room. Those early ideas are jotted down in individual notebooks — one for every room — which eventually fill with fabric swatches, paint chips, ribbons, sketches, dimensions, scale drawings, and photographs. Each notebook outlines a room’s design plan, start to finish. Specific ornaments are designated — the Australian pink wildflower or the snowflakes — for certain areas. “We’re as familiar with our decorations as you are with yours at home,” Cathy says. Most ornaments are glass and, naturally, are appropriate to what George would have had.

In late summer, Cathy meets with each designer. “Sell me,” she advises them, as though they’re defending a decorating thesis. “Convince me that it’s appropriate to the era.” If two people have really great ideas, she says, “I just have to decide which one fits the theme better.”

Cathy also encourages designers to do their own historical research, “because I know how much I love doing it, and as creative people, they need to be doing it, too. The hunt is half the fun.” The designers do get excited — discovering, for instance, that Cornelia Vanderbilt ice-skated on the pond on the front lawn of Biltmore. Hence, a pair of antique ice skates are woven into a mantel garland.

The Breakfast Room at the back of the house boasts gorgeous Blue Ridge views. But during the holidays, the Christmas tree is the focal point. Last year, glass lantern ornaments gave the tree Bohemian flair. photograph by Charles Harris

Cathy reviews each notebook with a pink pen in hand, jotting suggestions and questions: “Can you connect to NY family trip?” reads one note. The word “live” has been crossed out and replaced with “fresh-cut” on another page. Cathy admits, “Sometimes it’s like being a schoolmarm.” What you won’t find in the notebooks is anything modern. No elves. No Rudolphs. Nothing cutesy. “They try, though,” she says, laughing. “They love their flashy metallic stuff.”

Most of the tabletop trees, and anything else small enough to carry, are decorated in the summer. By September, Christmas is “in the box and on the shelf,” as Cathy puts it. The same way you stash early-purchase presents, the designers hide their small creations in the closets of their designated rooms. “People are amazed,” Cathy says, “that we’re not wrapping the trees in shrink-wrap every year and sticking them in a closet somewhere, as is.”

• • •
 

Decorating, as opposed to crafting, begins in earnest in October. For many guests, watching the decorations go up is as much a reason to visit Biltmore as seeing it all finished in December. And folks remember, year to year, what they see.

When the Fraser fir is in position, scaffolding is brought into the Banquet Hall. Just like at home, the lights are strung first — 500 LED Edison bulbs. photograph by Charles Harris

“People get proprietary,” Cathy says. “They’ll tell you what they want.” Early on, she used to put a moss-and-berry-covered wire goose topiary on the banquet table. The year she decided to move the arrangement beneath a tree in another room, letters and phone calls poured in, demanding, “Where’s the Christmas goose?” There’s no such worry with the manger scene, which is always in the Tapestry Gallery. Thirty years old, the crèche was handmade in Spain by a cottage industry that didn’t exist in George’s day, so it’s unlikely that he could have had one like it. But in keeping with the guiding question — What would George do? — the answer would certainly be “buy the best available,” which this Nativity scene is.

Amid all the oversize grandeur — the Grand Staircase draped with greenery, bows, and gilded twine — mere flower arrangements might seem superfluous. On the contrary: “We want fresh,” Cathy says reverently. Anything close to the velvet ropes, where guests can smell the aromas, is fresh and “maintained” — watered, drooping stems substituted — three times a week, and replaced weekly.

The people who supply the live greenery are special to the estate. Bluff Mountain Nursery in Hot Springs, started by a former Biltmore employee, has been making all the garlands, wreaths, kissing balls, and sprays for more than 25 years. “When you find people who are as invested in what we’re doing here as we are,” Cathy says, “you keep them.” Andrews Nursery in Newland started providing trees for Biltmore three years before Cathy even arrived; beginning with the 55-foot tree outside, they come six times during the Christmas season with replacement trees.

Biltmore is mindful of the local community, too. When decorations get a little worn, they’re donated to Habitat for Humanity. Trees go to area churches for their fellowship halls. “We’re masters of repurposing,” Cathy says. “We cut off the lights on the outside tree and take them to the recycler because we get money back for the copper wiring.” After Christmas, live trees go through the wood chipper to make mulch for the grounds.

Are there decorating disasters? The possibility is everywhere: Dangling items can catch in stag horns; kissing balls can tumble. “This is an old house,” Cathy says, “so of course we blow fuses” — just like you do at home. What Biltmore has that you don’t is three engineering teams to help out, from putting up trees and hanging wreaths to calculating how many lights a tree can support. At full run, some 2,300 employees work at the estate. And every night during the Christmas season, some of them are tasked with lighting — and, later, extinguishing — every real candle in every sand-filled luminary on the drive.

• • •
 

Meanwhile, back in the workshop, Zaxby’s take-out bags are abandoned on a table. Cathy consults her own notebook — “the playbook,” as she calls it — which is thick, index-tabbed, and color-coded by area. Its pages are dog-eared from constant consultation, and wavy from contact with flowers and water. Everything is minutely, completely organized, notes and all, in Cathy’s script. “It’s so fluid and ever-changing that it’s pointless to put it on a spreadsheet,” she says.

The process certainly has worked well these 40 years. For her last Christmas, Cathy wanted to revel in the Vanderbilt family traditions: “A Vanderbilt Christmas,” the theme she selected as her finale, is really a tribute to George, who so loved the season. “There are 13 or 14 copies of A Christmas Carol in the library that were his as a child,” Cathy says. “He held the grand opening of Biltmore at Christmas, even though it wasn’t finished.”

Nothing about Christmas goes unfinished at Biltmore today. As Cathy unwraps another ornament — museum protocol requires that each one be individually tissued — she whispers, “Look at this.” Holding up the orb to catch the light, she adds, “Does that not say Biltmore?” Her voice is filled with awe, love, and a deep devotion to the house, the collection, the memories, and, of course, the intentions of George.

The Biltmore design team hangs 7,500 feet of garland during the season: The lengths made from white pine and Fraser fir are replaced weekly. photograph by Charles Harris


Biltmore Estate
1 Lodge Street
Asheville, NC 28803
(800) 411-3812
biltmore.com

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.

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