Hundreds of luminarias light the driveway and terrace. The home, in the style of a French chateau, is filled with nearly 100 beautifully decorated trees, more than 1,000 wreaths and bows, 1,500 poinsettias, 25,000 lights, 9,000 feet of fresh garland and thousands of ornaments.
Breathtaking? Yes. Daunting? You bet. Biltmore, in Asheville, N.C., is one of those magical places that bring back the excitement of Christmas many of us forget in the hassle of the holidays.
The magnificent estate, built by George W. Vanderbilt when he was a 27-year-old bachelor, officially opened on Christmas Eve 1895, and it continues to welcome holiday guests. This is the 33d year it has been decorated for the season. (Halls will be decked through Jan. 1.)
A nighttime tour of America's largest house reveals 200 candles creating the mood of Christmas past. And a 38-foot Fraser fir, adorned with lights, ornaments and oversized gifts in the 72-foot-high banquet hall, greets guests in the same way that Vanderbilt and his wife, Edith, did 100 years ago.
Decorating at Biltmore has come a long way in the last three decades, since the days when the floral director dressed the tree with her sister and mother. Now, it takes 20 people working for three weeks from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. to create this fantasy. Some traditional elements are included, but each year the theme changes, and so do the decorations. This year's theme is "Arts & Classics in the Arts."
I wanted to learn how the Biltmore team works its magic, so I took a "Deck the Halls" class with floral designer Elaine Dey. (If you've already finished decorating for this Christmas, you can save this advice for next year.)
Selecting the theme. The key to decorating Biltmore-style is taking inspiration from fabric, artwork, wallpaper or other room details, Dey says. It doesn't have to be red and green. Your tree decor can be any color you like.
Collecting decorations. Unify the tree with color, decorations from your childhood, items you have collected, even wrapped packages.
Tester's tip: Armed with an idea, head out to the floral or crafts store and take along a swatch of fabric or ornaments to help you create a color-coordinated theme. Keep scale in mind: If it's a small tree, you'll need smaller decorations than if you are creating a large tree. Since I was decorating a 41/2-foot tree, I selected small matte gold balls, floral picks with gold berries and gauzy leaves that reflect the light, and four large faux poinsettias.
Fluffing the faux tree. Wear cotton garden gloves with rubberized palms or disposable gloves, then pull down, up and out on the tree branches until they look natural, Dey suggests.
Tester's tip: I found gardener's gloves too cumbersome, and disposable gloves left a powdery residue on the ornaments. Fluff with bare hands unless your hands are sensitive.
Lighting the tree. Buy light strings with 50 bulbs and connect no more than six sets together to prevent blowing fuses, Dey says. Biltmore's team hangs the lights vertically to make it easier to remove a string that needs replacing.
Drop the light string about three feet from the top of the tree, so the outlet is not at the top. Then start wrapping the lights around each branch all the way to the inside of the trunk, to create depth. Leave about six inches between the lights. Biltmore changes lights every two years to cut down on replacing them after they're on the tree.
Tester's tip: If you want to save time, go with a prelit tree. Many of these last only a few years. If you want yours to last longer, buy a tree prelit with LED bulbs. They cost more, but they last longer and use less electricity.
Stringing garland. Beading, vines, ribbon and so forth should be placed on the tree next, to avoid breaking ornaments later on. Start at the top of the tree and wrap the garland around. Drop to the next level at the back of the tree. To make sure the garland doesn't slip, attach the point of the garland to the tree with floral wire or pipe cleaners.
Topping the tree. Go traditional with a star or an angel or, Dey says, group two large bows together with streamers and attach them to the tree with a pipe cleaner. (Roll the streamers up and keep them in place with a paper clip until you're finished decorating.) Other possibilities include gold twigs and faux roses anchored with bows, a toy or cherished objects. To make the top less wobbly, fold the top branch in half before you secure the topper.
Tester's tip: I connected three gold poinsettias and attached them to the tree top with a gold chenille pipe cleaner.
Adding ornaments. Use coordinating ornaments to give your tree character and interest. Place the largest toward the bottom and in large holes between branches. Place shiny ornaments deep inside the tree to reflect light. Put delicate and showy ornaments on last, on the outside of the branches.
Tester's tip: Biltmore uses traditional ornament hangers, but I prefer floral wire. Cut about 6 inches of wire and twist one end securely around the ornament hook. Wrap the other side of the wire around the branch. You may want to hang some tight to the branch and drop others down to fill in spaces.
Filling in. Use floral picks to fill in the gaps, Dey says. Craft stores have a variety to choose from, and you can select large silk flowers or multiple floral picks that can be separated. Another option is to cut up red berry garland.
Tester's tip: I selected floral picks with small gold berries and gauzy leaves that could be taken apart. You will need a strong wire cutter; bring the floral picks to the hardware store and try out a few.
Skirting the issue. You can buy a tree skirt ready-made or select a piece of tapestry, velvet or a solid-colored throw. The tree skirt will look softer if you place crumpled tissue paper under the fabric.
Checking it twice. Stand back from the tree and squint, Dey urges: Make a triangle with your hands to see if everything looks covered. Make adjustments as needed.