Candlelight Christmas Evenings at Biltmore Estate
A Quaint Family Home
When the doors first swung open on Christmas Eve of 1895, George W. Vanderbilt became the homeowner of the largest private home in the United States. Built with the intention of being a simple country home, Biltmore Estate was an elaborate addition to the already beautiful mountain scenery of Western North Carolina.
Shortly after construction was completed, he brought along his wife, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, and the couple had their only child, Cornelia, in the home in 1900. Vanderbilt died in 1914 after complications from an appendectomy and left the management of the estate in the hands of his wife. Cornelia and her husband John Amherst Cecil opened the home to the public in 1930 to boost tourism for the area and help ease the intense pressure from the Depression.
The Biltmore at Christmas
The Christmas season has always been an important time for the estate, starting from that very first event in 1895. Vanderbilt invited family and friends to celebrate the holiday in his brand new home. He also threw an extravagant party for his staff complete with plenty of presents and tasty treats for everyone. The family held multiple events each and every year, but none could be compared to the enormity and popularity of the annual Christmas parties.
FYI on the Photos
Biltmore Estate does not allow personal photography of any kind inside of the main house with the exception of scheduled promotional photographs. This is the sole reason my few personal pictures were taken outside of the home.
Bucket List: Christmas at Biltmore—CHECK!
One of the first thoughts that popped into my mind when I began planning a trip to visit my mother in North Carolina was, "December? *gasp* I have to go to the Biltmore!" The estate has always been a slight infatuation of mine, even before I knew what it was called (Mom, Dad—remember all of those pictures from magazines I had plastered all over my wall? Biltmore was up there . . .), and, having only visited it for the first time last year, I'd been itching to go back.
The architecture, the gargoyles, the gardens, the lush landscaping and (of course) the winery—what could make this epic mountain landmark any more impressive? I've heard stories and seen pictures of Biltmore at Christmas time, but no HD image could prepare me for exactly how absolutely beautiful it was in person.
Cedric the Dog
"Cedric's Tavern" is named after the Vanderbilt family's first St. Bernard—Cedric. He was the first in a long line of dogs that called Biltmore home. There is a statue in front of the tavern of Cedric and a young Cornelia. He even has his own Twitter! @BigDogBiltmore (It's been a while since he has tweeted . . .)
Antler Hill Village & Winery (Sort Of)
My family and I purchased our tickets at the front gate for 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 10, 2013. Since we arrived so early (around 5:30 p.m.), we decided to head first to Antler Hill Village & Winery to explore and maybe get a bite to eat before making our way to the main house. We followed the winding road through the grounds as the sun slowly set over the horizon and finally pulled into the parking lot where I excitedly hopped out of the car.
Now, here is a disclaimer: I am from Florida. Born and raised. Although I enjoy chilly weather every now and then (one week a year while I am on vacation)—35 degrees is cold. And 27 degrees is really cold. I mean COLD. My excitement must have had my blood and adrenaline flowing full speed, because until we were halfway up the parking lot towards the village I was totally oblivious to the sudden drop in temperature. As the stiff wind smacked me across the face, it felt as though someone had pushed my face down into a fresh pile of snow. (Not that I have any idea what that actually feels like, I imagine this was close.)
Even less enthusiastic about the weather was my mom and aunt who quickly escaped the elements into the first open door: Traditions, a shop with all sorts of decorations and knick-knacks. From there we attempted to ice skate (I'm kidding . . . sort of) across the courtyard to Cedric's Tavern to find something to eat. Thinking we didn't have enough time for a sit-down meal, we left with empty stomachs and scurried back to the car where heated seats were waiting.
At Biltmore House:
- A Christmas Past
- Carriage House
- A Gardener's Place
At Antler Hill Village & Winery:
- Outdoor Adventure Center
- Wine Shop
After parking our car and taking the shuttle bus to the main house of the estate, my family and I went in search of a quick bite before beginning our tour. Once we were dropped off before the front doors of the home we took a right turn towards the former stables area. The courtyard was relatively empty in comparison to the last time I visited Biltmore, which was during the day. My best guess is that the chilly weather was to blame. We bought some sweet snacks and hot chocolate from the Bake Shop and then huddled tightly underneath one of the many heating lamps scattered about the courtyard.
With our bellies warmed and full we then explored the many small shops in the stables. Not wanting to carry any bags throughout the tour, we plotted out a few future purchases that we would make after our visit was complete.
Dining Options at Biltmore Estate
Enjoy delicious Carolina barbeque, fresh salads and desserts in a comfortable restaurant. (Open daily for lunch)
Fresh sandwiches, salads and snacks. Cold drinks, beer and wine available. (Open seasonally - outdoor seating)
Freshly baked pastries, sandwiches and gourmet coffees and herbal teas. (Outdoor seating)
Ice Cream Parlor
Hand-scooped ice cream and drinks. (Open seasonally - outdoor seating)
Biltmore House (Walled Garden)
Light refreshments. (Open seasonally, weather permitting - outdoor seating)
Antler Hill Village
Wood-fired pizzas, sandwiches for lunch. Mountain trout, estate-raised beef and lamb for dinner.
Antler Hill Village
Fish & chips, sandwiches and burgers for lunch. Fresh seafood and hearty steaks for dinner.
Antler Hill Village (Barn)
Carolina barbeque, hot dogs and sandwiches. (Outdoor seating)
Antler Hill Village
Ice cream, sundaes and fresh pastries along with coffee and drinks. (Outdoor seating)
Antler Hill Village (Wine Shop)
Biltmore Wines served by glass or bottle, gourmet picinic foods.
"Taste of the South" buffet. (Only serving Saturday lunch and Sunday brunch)
Inn on Biltmore Estate
Inn on Biltmore Estate
Lunch, afternoon tea, casual dinner and cocktails in Library Lounge. Quality meats and seafood for elegant dinner in The Dining Room. (Reservations strongly recommended)
"A Home for Entertaining"
As the front doors opened the soft sounds from a Christmas choir came pouring out into the cold night. The small singing group was located in the Winter Garden surrounded by bright red poinsettias and other beautiful flowers. The candlelight from lanterns hanging in-between strands of white Christmas lights illuminated the Entrance Hall, with lit garland and ribbons wrapped around the pillars.
Entrance Hall/Winter Garden/Billiard RoomClick thumbnail to view full-size
Bright moonlight poured in through the glass ceiling above the Winter Garden with the statue Boy Stealing Geese located in the center of the small space. The circular-shaped area is roped off, but you are able to walk in full length around the Garden to look in from all angles as the carolers entertain and welcome the crowds.
The first room you enter on the tour is the Billiard Room. Keeping with the theme, several fully decorated Christmas trees are spotted around the room amid the custom oak billiard tables that were made in 1895, the same year the house was opened to family and friends.
Biltmore House Christmas Tree Raising 2013
The annual tree raising has become quite an event for Biltmore Estate and is included in the admission price for that particular day. Dozens of guests line up and await the trees arrival (led of course by Santa!) and continue to watch as the roughly 40-person crew works to raise the tree into place in the banquet hall. The 2013 tree was brought from Andrew's Nursery.
Best part—this is the ONLY day photography is allowed inside Biltmore House, but only in the Banquet Hall!
As you enter the connecting room, the heavy scent of Christmas washes over you. An enormous 35-foot tall Fraser fir stands at the end of the room, decorated in brightly colored ornaments of all shapes and sizes with red bows and several wrapped presents underneath the tree. 500 ornaments are used to decorate the massive tree - the original number George Vanderbilt used.
A visitor's favorite, the Banquet Hall is easily the most recognizable room at Biltmore. The 38-seat oak table spanning down the center of the room was were guests of the Biltmore home would enjoy a 7 to 10 course meal accompanied by several glasses of different wines. Elegant table settings give tour-goers an idea of how impressive a meal with the Vanderbilts was - decadent china, silver utensils and crystal glasses - all matching with red and gold accents.
Mostly hidden behind the Christmas tree this time of year, the Organ Loft is home to the 1916 Skinner pipe organ. The pipes are impressive and reach all the way to the ceiling of the seven story high room.
On the far left wall of the hall is a triple fireplace that is burning brightly for the Candlelight Christmas Evenings. Near the fireplaces are a few smaller Christmas trees complete with their own presents and decorations.
Breakfast Room/Salon/Music RoomClick thumbnail to view full-size
Smaller Downstairs Rooms
The Breakfast Room, Salon and Music room are all dressed up in the classic holiday fashion, each room having their own trees, wreaths and garland strung amid the usual furniture and everyday decorations. Portraits of family members, fabric wall coverings and ceilings and two Renoir paintings (Young Algerian Girl and Child with an Orange) showed Vanderbilt's love for art which was influenced by his father, William Henry Vanderbilt whose portrait hangs in the Breakfast Room.
(In the Music Room, staff members will take your family's picture before one of the Christmas trees in the room. The portrait is available for purchase at the end of your tour.)
Spanning an impressive 90-feet, the Tapestry Gallery houses Flemish tapestries as well as more portraits of the Vanderbilt family including George Vanderbilt, his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt, and George's wife, Edith Vanderbilt. The main wall is entirely covered with three tapestries. These represent Charity, Faith and Prudence and are a part of collection of seven titled The Triumph of the Seven Virtues. Already exquisite in their own right, they are even more dazzling being illuminated by the Christmas lights from the several trees in the room.
My Personal Favorite: The Library
The library is my most favorite room in the entire house. It's impossible not to get lost in the history of this room that houses half of George Vanderbilt's 23,000 volume collection of books. Subjects range from religion and philosophy, art and architecture, history and American and English fictional works. The fireplace at the front of the room is the largest in the house - 6 feet high, 6 feet wide and 6 feet deep.
Above the room, the ceiling displays The Chariot of Aurora, painted by Italian artist Giovanni Pellegrini. The piece was originally located at the Pisani Palace in Venice.
Stands of lighted garland and several Christmas trees add to the stunning look and feel of the room. Along with the crackling of the mighty fireplace, the ambiance makes you want to curl up with one of the books on the couch in the center of the room.
Second Floor Rooms and BedroomsClick thumbnail to view full-size
The second story of the main house is where the family rooms, including the master bedrooms, are located. The living hall doubles as a formal hallway and portrait gallery. Two notable paintings in the room are that of the houses architect, Richard Morris Hunt and the landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt's elaborate bedrooms are joined by an oak sitting room where the couple would have breakfast and plan their day. George's room overlooks the estate and is filled with decorative seating and furniture, mostly colored a bright red. Edith's oval-shaped room is full of purple and gold satin wall coverings and matching furnishings.
Decorations are a bit lighter in this section of the house, but all of the fireplaces are roaring and sending their warmth throughout the sleeping quarters.
While making your way upstairs to the third floor of the home you pass through another wide open living hall followed by a long hallway that gives you an excellent view of the exterior architecture of the house. (For a more in-depth look into the architecture, check out the Behind-the-Scenes Guided Architect's Tour that takes guests to the rooftops and balconies!)
The tour then leads you into the Louis XV Hallway that serves as a gateway to the estates extravagant guestrooms. These four rooms all have their own individual theme and usually served as lodging for friends and family for weeks at a time. Grand wallpaper, furnishings, draperies and views of the property made for a comfortable stay. Rooms include the Damask Room, Claude Room, Tyrolean Chimney room and the Louis XV Room where Cornelia Vanderbilt was born. (Nowadays, guests can stay in the incredible Inn on Biltmore Estate located a short distance from the main house and within walking distance of Antler Hill Village & Winery!)
Inn on Biltmore Estate
FYI on Elevators
The elevator only grants access to the 1st and 2nd floors of Biltmore House! For those guests who cannot use the stairs there is a room on the second floor providing a video tour of the rooms you are unable to get to. Also, the basement is inaccessible.
Basement and Recreation Areas
Back in the main foyer of the home, the tour takes you underneath the main sweeping staircase. Downstairs, you travel through a stone hallway leading to the basement which is where the servant's quarters, kitchens and pantries and recreational areas are located.
- Halloween Room: Not necessarily going along with the Christmas theme is the Halloween Room. The brick walls are entirely covered with strange paintings from floor to ceiling. In 1925, Cornelia and her husband hosted a New Year's Eve party and painted this monstrous room for the celebration. (In this room are computers and sign in books where you can input your information to receive updates about the estate.)
- Bowling Alley: Who doesn't want a bowling alley in their home?! The Vanderbilts were one of the very first families to have a private bowling alley. A servant would work as a pinsetter and roll the balls back to the players. (A single lighted Christmas stands towards the entrance of the room...)
- Dressing Rooms/Swimming Pool: Ladies in the house would change into their unique style bathing outfits and step into the wide room that houses the 70,000-gallon indoor heated swimming pool. The pool still contains the original underwater lighting.
- Gymnasium: This room in another personal favorite of mine just for how silly the fitness equipment seems. Needle baths (massage showers), leather medicine balls, parallel bars and wooden clubs used for weights would keep guests entertained - and healthy! (I can't help but picture a muscle man with a thick moustache dressed in one of those classic black & white stripped tight-suits prancing about the gym...)
Kitchen, Pantries, and Servant's QuartersClick thumbnail to view full-size
Also located on the lower floor of the home are the Servant's Domains. This includes their living quarters, several kitchens, meat lockers and freezers, vegetables pantries and the room housing the massive engine that powers the pipe organ located in the Banquet Hall. Inside of the small bedrooms and living areas of the maids and servants, guests will notice a little Christmas touch added for this time of the year. Small packages, stockings and quaint decorations adorn the rooms, including a gingerbread house resembling Biltmore House inside of the baking kitchen. (Downton Abbey fans will love this section of the home!)
Lastly, the tour-goers are led into the Bachelor's Wing. Up another flight of stairs is where the men of the home would smoke cigars while discussing business and politics. The Smoking Room and the Gun Room ("manly stuff") are located in the same hall as bedrooms that were available for single, male gentlemen.
You exit the home out of a large side door that leads you directly into the stable area entrance where all of the shops and dining options are located. This is also where you will be able to purchase your family's portrait if you choose - the photograph that was taken inside of the Music Room!
Christmas at Biltmore House
A Fun Side Note . . .
After exiting the estate and awaiting the shuttle bus to take us back to our car, we noticed four or five silver and black Land Rovers pull up to the front of the home. Having never seen someone pull right up to the door, we quietly asked an employee what that was all about.
The woman whispered, "It's the Vanderbilts..."
Apparently each and every year, the descendants of George Vanderbilt visit the property during the annual Christmas celebration. We also heard that there is a section of the home roped off from the tour where the family has a private holiday party, keeping the Christmas tradition alive. It is truly something special to be able to bring your children and grandchildren to a place such as Biltmore House and teach them your family's history.