If you’ve been, you know: One of the most spectacular holiday installations in the southeastern United States shines in Asheville, North Carolina. Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre estate, puts on a show for Christmas like no other. Lizzie Whitcher, Biltmore House’s Floral Manager and the architect of its annual holiday decor, has some tips to share so that you, too, can elevate your seasonal accoutrement to Vanderbilt heights…or, you know, close enough.
1. Choose a theme for each room. Sure, anyone can choose a single aesthetic for their home—reds and golds, colorful lights, blues and silvers. But to really take it up a notch, follow the Biltmore’s lead and assign each room its own vibe. “This year, rather than having a uniform theme, we opened up the options for our team and made the house ‘designer’s choice,’” Whitcher says. “The Morning Salon, for example, was designed around the ceiling in that room, which is draped with a deep red tapestry. The tree and all the decor have a Moroccan flare this year, with lots of deep oxblood and antique gold.” If a team of seventeen designers working all year isn’t feasible, assign each person in your family the task of choosing a theme for their room (as long as you trust their taste, of course).
2. Go big and go home. Thoughtfully choosing your main tree is of paramount importance. Vanderbilt’s original 1895 Christmas tree was cut to “reach halfway to the Banquet Hall ceiling,” which is a dazzling seventy feet high. “The thirty-five-foot fresh Fraser fir is inspired by archival documents, which confirm that each year, the family installed a tree that size in the Banquet Hall,” says Whitcher. If, like for most of us, a tree that size would put a Clark Griswold-esque hole in your roof, pare it down to a more conservative seven- or eight-foot conifer, but keep the grandiosity: Choose it with care and dress it well.
3. While you’re at it, install multiple trees (or at least two)! Inside Biltmore House, there are sixty-seven trees this season—but even these design experts don’t rely solely on live greenery. “Most of ours are faux,” Whitcher explains, “since our season is so long. We open for Christmas the first weekend of November.” Besides those in the house, there are roughly thirty more decorated trees around the grounds. If having multiple live trees doesn’t make sense, you can follow the Biltmore’s lead and invest in a faux tree that pays dividends in holiday spirit, year after year. Or, consider decorating a favorite exterior evergreen tree or two, too.
4. Ribbon, ribbon, ribbon. While they’re incredibly “in” this year, ribbons are always a staple at Biltmore House. “We use about 9,500 yards of ribbon, mostly in the form of hand-tied bows,” Whitcher says. “It can be a big part of creating a ‘look’ on your tree. A bow doesn’t have to be expensive or elegantly tied—I love an unwired shoestring bow at the end of every branch.” For a bow-topped tree, she suggests going an easier route: Instead of creating a big wired bow with your hand, tie a series of loops and attach it to the top of your tree, then repeat the process until every angle exhibits a beautiful bunch of loops. “It almost looks like a bow is encircling the tree,” she says. Maybe the most achievable (and on-trend!) style tip of all, you can purchase ribbons galore at your local craft store.
5. Don’t forget the details. Struggling to get your tree (or trees, if you went with the hundred or so recommended before) evenly lit? Use the squint test. “As you light the tree, step back from it and squint your eyes until the lights go a little blurry. It becomes clear quickly where there’s a dark spot or a clump of lights,” Whitcher suggests. Another tip from the experts—stuffing your tree skirt! “We’re all about stuffing some tissue paper under your tree skirt to make it big and fluffy.”
Whatever the details you choose, enjoy the process. Christmas, as the Biltmore team knows well, is a great opportunity to be creative and whimsical—and, in some ways, the only time of year that more really is more. Who says you have to use the same decorations in the same places each season? “We aim to provide a different Christmas experience every year, especially for those who return annually to Biltmore House,” Whitcher says. “You’ll never see the same decor two years in a row. If there’s an ornament in the bowling alley this year, it’ll be in the Billiards Room next year.” Whether you’re in your own billiard room or bowling alley (or, more practically, your kitchen or living room), giving yourself the gift of novelty can make the decorating process less of a chore and more of a delight. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Christmas at Biltmore by the Numbers:
• There are about 45,000 lights and 250 candles used inside Biltmore House, and another 850,000 lights used throughout the property.
• The Banquet Hall tree alone showcases about 500 ornaments.
• 2,000 poinsettias are used on the campus, a great many of which are grown by Biltmore’s on-site horticulture team and replaced periodically throughout the season.
• 205 handmade wreaths can be found on display throughout the house.
• About 1,000 yards of garland, fresh and faux, are used in the house at Christmastime.
• After choosing the season’s stunning 35-foot Fraser fir tree, it usually takes about 50 staff members to raise and secure it in its place of honor in the Banquet Hall.
• 13,870 ornaments can be found decorating the trees throughout Biltmore House, which usually number between 50 and 70 each year.
• For Candlelight Christmas Evenings, a special event series where guests can marvel at Biltmore’s gorgeous decor by candlelight after dark, a staggering 400 hand-lit luminaries line the Esplanade.
• The massive Norway spruce tree outside the house usually stands around 70 feet tall.