ASHEVILLE, N.C. - It's amazing how 100 decorated trees, 1,000 wreaths and bows, 1,800 poinsettias, miles of evergreens, and thousands of ornaments and lights can spruce up a 250-room French Renaissance chateau.
Greeted by carolers, my wife, Nancy, and I enter the palatial Biltmore Estate through the same front doors that George W. Vanderbilt first threw open to family and friends on Christmas Eve 1895. A natural garland garnished with bright red bows outlines the sweeping Grand Staircase, the evergreens scenting the foyer.
Red and white poinsettias encircle a perfectly shaped and decorated Christmas tree twinkling with white lights.
The entrance leads to the Winter Garden, with its bright skylight illuminating the centerpiece sculpture, Boy Stealing Geese by Karl Bitter. The garden's poinsettias are surrounded by lighted spruce trees, "kissing balls" with mistletoe, and pots overflowing with red berries.
From the promenade, visitors can enjoy performances of holiday chamber music, choral singers, and Christmas-inspired ballet.
There are decorations in 98 rooms open for our self-guided tour, filling them with the Vanderbilt Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
Based on this year's theme, "Christmas Traditions From Around the World," rooms reflect the customs of 19 countries that Vanderbilt visited. For example, plaid banners and feathers, representing Scotland, decorate the tree in the Billiard Room. In the Music Room, the scheme draws on Russian Christmas traditions, with Faberge-style eggs on the tree.
And, in the Oak Sitting Room, the tree is decorated with little Eiffel Towers, anchors and bon voyage plaques, symbolizing Vanderbilt's proposal to his wife, Edith, on a ship to France and their marriage in Paris in 1898.
"The theme this year is really special because it goes back to the history of the Vanderbilts," says Biltmore spokeswoman Andy Pearce. "They were world travelers and such collectors."
Inspiration for the decorations come from newspaper clippings and photographs of that era, says Cathy Barnhardt, floral display manager and leader of the team that produces the Christmas pageantry. Her staff of 10 full-timers and many more helpers works a month to get the mansion ready for the seven-week season that draws 300,000 visitors.
Entering the Banquet Room, we come face-to-Fraser fir with the tallest indoor Christmas tree we've ever seen. Following the colored lights, wrapped gift boxes, little brass horns, stars and balls upward, our eyes finally reach the top - 35 feet up. But its not even close to the 70-foot arched ceiling.
A fellow visitor marvels that the 72-by-42-foot space, with its triple fireplace and 16th-century Flemish tapestries, looks more like a grand museum hall than a family dining room. But it was here, at the 40-foot oak table, that Vanderbilt and his guests dined that first Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Following family tradition, there's a table covered with gifts next to the towering tree. Since that first Christmas, there's been a gift for every child attending family gatherings, including those of estate workers, Barnhardt says.
"Even in later years, Mrs. Vanderbilt would personally wrap and select a gift for each child, for when the families of Biltmore workers gathered," Barnhardt says. "And she'd keep a careful ledger so a child would not get a duplicate gift the next year."
At one Christmas party, a worker's daughter was unhappy with her gift of a paper doll, Barnhardt says.
When Edith Vanderbilt asked what gift she'd prefer, the girl pointed to a Christmas ball on the centerpiece tree. So the lady of the manor reached up, retrieved the ball for the girl, and directed that each child get an ornament, Barnhardt says.
For the Christmas season, Biltmore opens for night tours, so Nancy and I return from the neighboring Biltmore Inn for a Candlelight Evening.
Just for us - and everyone who comes this season - a forest of evergreens decorated with white lights and softly lit tulip poplars has joined the traditional Fraser fir on the front lawn.
Inside, light from flickering candles and roaring fires adds an intimacy to this homey trove of art and history. In the first-floor Salon, Napoleon Bonaparte's chess set is arrayed on the board, awaiting the first move.
Around the corner, decorated Christmas trees light the 90-foot-long Tapestry Gallery, with its Flemish wall hangings and exquisitely painted limestone fireplace hoods. Portraits of our hosts, George and Edith Vanderbilt, are watching us.
In the library, light from the fireplace casts a glow on 10,000 books and the stunning 18th-century Pellegrini ceiling canvas, The Chariot of Aurora, that once graced the Pisani Palace in Venice.
Throughout the four-story mansion, carolers, choirs, ballet dancers, mimes and marionettes create a festive scene.
And stories of Vanderbilt holiday traditions take us back to Christmas Eve 1895.
Leaving the estate for the ride over the Smoky Mountains and home, Nancy talked about the beauty of Biltmore's lasting Christmas gift to us.
It wasn't something to hold in our hands, but rather a powerful holiday spirit that transcended Southern hospitality.
Like departing holiday guests a century ago, we were happy that George and Edith Vanderbilt had opened their home to us.
The Biltmore House
One Approach Rd.
Web site: www.biltmore.com
Hours: Welcome Center opens at 8:30 a.m.; Biltmore House, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Admission: Through Dec. 24, adults 17 and older, $50 online, $55 at gate; ages 10-16, $21 online, $23.50 at gate. Dec. 25 through Jan. 4, adults $57 online, $59 at gate; ages 10-16, $28.50 online, $29.50 at gate. Children 9 and younger admitted free. Saturday tickets through Dec. 20: Adults, $57 and $59; ages 10-16, $28.50 and $29.50.
Candlelight Plus tickets allow day and evening tours of the house, plus access to the grounds. Sunday through Thursday rates: $74 through Dec. 23, $78 from Dec. 26 through Jan. 3; Friday and Saturday tickets, $78. Youths 10-16, half price. Children 9 and younger, free.
Place to stay
Inn on Biltmore Estate
1 Antler Hill Rd.
Reservations online or by calling 1-800-858-4130
Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
- William Jobes