Travels & Traditions: Getting Ready for Christmas at Biltmore Estate - #306

BURT WOLF: Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is the largest private home in North America. It was put together by George W. Vanderbilt in the late 1800s. George was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. At one time Cornelius was the wealthiest man in the world and the family’s sense of grandeur is clearly visible throughout the estate. The original property covered 125,000 acres. George planted those acres with a working forest and a wooded park. He also directed the planting of five gardens and the construction of 30 miles of roadway.

When Vanderbilt purchased the land the forest had been cut down and the hills were covered with overworked farms. In the very beginning Vanderbilt wanted an estate that was commercially productive and that is precisely what he ended up with. The land produced fruits, vegetables, grain crops, meat, dairy products and honey. The forest supplied 3,000 cords of firewood. Biltmore had its own lumber mill. And the nursery grew five million plants and became one of the most important nurseries in the country. George introduced innovative farming techniques to the region. And helped found the first institute for scientific forestry in America. 

These days the land is under the care of Bill Alexander, who is the landscape curator for Biltmore estate.

BILL ALEXANDER ON CAMERA: Well, Mr. Vanderbilt was wise enough to hire America's premiere landscape architect at the time, Frederick Law Olmstead to advise him on how to manage his lands and bring them back to their former self.

BILL ALEXANDER: You know, Olmstead's plan for the estate was greater than just creating gardens and the immediate grounds around the house. He really began with the entrance to the estate. And Olmstead wanted the approach to the house to be really an emotional experience. During its entire three mile winding drives through lush forests and beside streams and pools he wanted to control the view to close at hand. And he wanted to introduce the element of mystery and anticipation as one traveled up the road ... not wondering what to see at the end. And then when the traveler rounded that last bend ... wham ... you know, there was this really ... surprise ... this delightful shock of the chateau with its orderly esplanade and lawns and avenue of trees. And it wasn't until one passed actually through the house ... or out of these terraces that you got a grasp of this grand panorama of the beautiful open park ... the river valley and the mountains beyond. Below the house and below the terrace is ... were a series of different gardens ... which were in a sense enclosed ... so that one could appreciate in its own self. 

BILL ALEXANDER ON CAMERA: And Olmstead wanted from this view of the house and the terrace to look out and have a really unim ... uninterrupted view of the beauty of the forest and the hills and the mountains beyond.

BURT WOLF: The main house has 250 rooms that cover four acres of floor space. There are 34 family and guest bedrooms each in a different style. Some are based on the works of famous English furniture designers. This room shows the designs of Thomas Chippendale who worked during the 1700s. You can always spot Chippendale's furniture because he loved carved legs that ended in claws. My grandmother had a Chippendale chair and it always scared the heck out of me. There are 43 bathrooms with hot and cold running water. In Asheville the idea of turning on a tap and suddenly having hot water was revolutionary. The house was equipped with three kitchens. The main kitchen was the center of activity. There was also a rotisserie kitchen with a wood-burning oven and a mechanized rotary spit with an adjustable speed gauge. The pastry kitchen produced the breads, cakes and pies. An indoor swimming pool held 70,000 gallons of water. Much of which had been heated in Biltmore's boilers. There were underwater lights and a diving platform. Fitness was coming into fashion so Vanderbilt included a gym. It was used primarily by the men. They had Indian clubs that were used to improve hand eye coordination ... and early change of a rowing machine ... and barbells. Bowling was brought to America in the 1600s by the Dutch ... and since Georgia's ancestors were Dutch ... and arrived in the 1600s ... it was only fitting that he installed a two lane bowling alley. Biltmore also has 65 fireplaces ... including one that is slightly larger than my first apartment. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 1880s Asheville became a popular health resort. People came here to enjoy the mineral springs ... the fresh air ... and the mild climate. Not too hot in the summer and not too cold in the winter. In 1888 George Vanderbilt came here for a vacation and decided that this was the place to build his home. He'd been visiting the estates in Europe and admired those giant estates with country farms that made the property self-sustaining. He named his place Biltmore. Bildt was the name of the town where his family came from in Holland and More is an old English word that means rolling hills.

BURT WOLF: George hired Richard Morris Hunt, a famous architect at the time, to design the building. And Frederick Law Olmstead to take care of the surrounding land. Olmstead had become famous as the landscape architect for New York’s Central Park. Hunt modeled the main structure after the French chateau of the Loire Valley that had been built during the 1500s. The house looked old but behind the walls was the most advanced technology. Central heating ... central plumbing ... electricity ... mechanical refrigerators ... fire alarms ... and elevators. Very new stuff for the time.

For decades Rick King as been studying the story of Biltmore.

RICK KING: This is the library which was one of Mr. Vanderbilt's favorite rooms. He was very much a bibliophile. When his father built his house in New York City it was very important that the press and the public know about this house. So they had a media tour, if you will. 

RICK KING ON CAMERA: The press went through Mr. Vanderbilt's house and when they got to George's room the one thing they commented on was the walls were all covered in bookshelves and books were everywhere. And it's obvious that he very much loved books. In fact, Mr. Vanderbilt could read and write in eight different languages. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How did Mr. Vanderbilt come to Asheville?

RICK KING ON CAMERA: Well, interesting thing about Asheville ... prior to the war between the states not many people came here ... other than some Southern planters from Charleston, would come up in the summer time. But after the war they finally got around to building a railroad to Asheville, North Carolina ...and a lot of people felt that the mountain air was good for people who had tuberculosis. So people came here for their health. And what would happen is people would come to visit them. So there needed to be inns ... hotels ... boarding houses had to be built. And then the word spread. And then soon people who weren't sick started coming here just to visit for its own sake. And it got to be a very, very popular tourist resort town. Mr. Vanderbilt and his mother used to come here quite a bit.

RICK KING ON CAMERA: And also while he would like to horseback riding and riding around one day, he decided that he would like to have a house in this area. And it started out ... his initial plans were really kind of a small southern house ... you know, really quite small 'til it started expanding to a small place ...

to a larger place. He wasn't married when he started building the house. Mrs. Vanderbilt who came with him was his mother.

RICK KING ON CAMERA: And she was his in fact his hostess when he first opened the house for a Christmas party in 1895. It wasn't 'til 1897 that Mr. Vanderbilt married. And he married in Paris.

BURT WOLF: The construction crews moved out and George Vanderbilt moved in just in time to celebrate the Christmas of 1895. Christmas became the most important event on the Biltmore calendar. And today Biltmore House is the ideal place to take a look at the traditional American Christmas. Almost everything we think of is part of Christmas. The tree ... the trimmings ... the presents ... Santa Claus ... the foods and drinks ... all of it came into our culture in the years just before and just after George Vanderbilt came here to live. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Christmas is about remembering your past. The sound of sleigh bells ... the smell of pine needles. The taste of gingerbread. Toys trains and little villages and you thought you could control. It reminds us of the time when we believed all of our dreams could come true. We celebrate Christmas at the coldest and darkest time of the year ... and the fields are completely baron. 

As a result, on of the messages that Christmas sends is no matter how dark and how cold it looks now ... warmth, light and growth will return.  And one of the ways that message is sent is with the greenery used to decorate the home.  Cathy Barnhardt is Biltmore Estate's floral supervisor.

CATHY BARNHARDT: This is the winter garden of Biltmore House and this is very typical houses at the turn of the century. It was a way to bring the outdoors indoors, especially in the cold dark days of winter.

BURT WOLF: Beautiful room.

CATHY BARNHARDT: It is a great room. It was used socially for the Vanderbilts. They had, parties in here ... they would greet guests in here.  Mrs. Vanderbilt would welcome guests to her home here in the winter garden and then offer tea.  I'm sure it was very much used on a routine basis when the Vanderbilts were here and Biltmore House.  Of course we have the winter garden decorated for Christmas right now.   We have very typical Christmas plants in here, and some maybe that aren't so typical.  Poinsettia - I think most people can identify as Christmas. The poinsettia has bright red bracts and the small yellow pieces here in the center represent the Crown of Thorns for Christ and the bracts are the blood of Christ.  So that is where the Christian symbolism comes into using poinsettias in your home and church.

BURT WOLF: They're not native to America, are they?

CATHY BARNHARDT: No, they were collected in 1829 by Joel Poinsette who was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.  And of course in Mexico poinsettias are just roadside weeds, they grow everywhere.  But quite exotic at that time.  This is an Olmstead basket which is a miniature garden in a basket.

BURT WOLF: And it's named after the garden architect Frederick Olmstead?

CATHY BARNHARDT: Yes - Frederick Law Olmstead was the landscape designer for Biltmore Estate. And it has all those little garden elements in it.  As well as traditional plants but I especially like to use the twigs. And again there's a little symbolic reason to use the twig. Do you see the buds about to burst open?  So you know that spring is coming - there’s renewal there.  Another plant typical of the turn of the century decorating is ivy.  I like to use that one at Christmas time because of its symbolism as well. It was used in ancient times to protect from evil spirits.  Ivy planted around the house and growing up over the cottage protects the inhabitants from evil spirits. And then the Christian belief takes it a step further and talks about the strength of ivy because once it does cling to something it doesn't let go.  So that strength ... that fidelity ... that belief is reflected in the ivy.

BURT WOLF: I am going to plant ivy this spring and ... 

CATHY BARNHARDT: Protect yourself and be strong.  Another plant typically found in winter gardens, otherwise known as palm courts are palms. We have several varieties here in the winter garden.  This is a fan palm ... we have eureka ... fish tails ... lots of different textures of greenery.

BURT WOLF: And they're also associated with Christ?

CATHY BARNHARDT: They certainly were. That's another nice tradition that we can tie in with Christmas, we all think about palm fronds being laid at Christ's feet on Palm Sunday and that represented humility and also honor for Christ.

BURT WOLF: So all of the plants in this room, besides being beautiful plants have additional meaning that relate to Christmas?

CATHY BARNHARDT: Yes.  Many, many of the plants that we use do relate right back to Christmas.  And I think it's important that we here at Biltmore try to hold onto those traditions.  We may not convey to every guest what those traditions are. But I think that it's important that we keep putting it out there so people think about it.

During the coldest and darkest days of winter ancient German tribes would gather evergreen branches and make them into wreaths as an expression of hope that spring would soon return.  Christian society kept the activity.  And associated it with overcoming the forces of winter and darkness. In ancient Rome a decorative wreath was a sign of victory which for Christian Europe became a symbol of victory over the darkness and the sorrows of life.associated it with overcoming the forces of winter and darkness. In ancient Rome a decorative wreath was a sign of victory which for Christian Europe became a symbol of victory over the darkness and the sorrows of life.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We're not really sure how the images we associate with Christmas in America took hold ... but it seems to me there are four guides in this deal. The first is the American author, Washington Irving ... thanks to Walt Disney Irving is most famous for his Tale of the Headless Horseman ... and the Story of Rip Van Winkle.

But in 1820, Irving wrote a story with a detailed description of an old fashioned Christmas. People loved the images of Christmas that were presented in Irving's story. And over 20 years later in 1843 Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol ...which included a lot of the stuff that came from Irving's story. During the Christmas season of 1867 Dickens toured the United States reading A Christmas Carol to huge audiences. Over 10,000 people showed up in Boston. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Clearly Dickens had the better PR agent. But the imagery in both those stories was exactly what the American public needed at the time. Christmas as a national holiday was quite new ... and the descriptions in Dickens and Irving ... connected what was happening here with the older traditions in England. And that was cool. 

During the 1880s newspapers, magazines and books were filled with stories saying nice things about the materialism of the American Christmas. It looked back to the opulence of Christmas in old England and claimed that if it was good enough for them it was okay for us. Undoubtedly, George Vanderbilt was aware of these attitudes and reflected them in his own home. The two other guys that gave American Christmas its present look were illustrators. J.C. Leyendecker took his inspiration from Irving's description of the ceremonies of ye olde English Christmas. And finally there was Norman Rockwell. Who referenced the Christmas of Charles Dickens. 

Christmas ... like all festivals ... is different from every day life ... and when you eat food that are only eaten at a particular festival ... it makes the occasion even more special. And that is especially true at Christmas. A perfect example is the Christmas pudding. It shows up once a year and is packed with information. A traditional Christmas pudding contains 13 ingredients representing Christ and His disciples. When you light the brandy that is poured over the pudding the flame represents Christ's passion. While a garnish of holly is a reminder of his Crown of Thorns. Stollen is a Christmas specialty that comes from Germany. It is a rich yeast bread filled with dried fruits, nuts, raisins and lemon. And topped with powdered sugar. It originated in Dresden, Germany during the 1300s. Mincemeat is a Christmas staple ... a rich blend of fruit, nuts, spices and brandy or rum. It's used in pies, tarts and puddings. At Biltmore it becomes a filling for turnovers. Christmas is also cookie time. And baking them is a perfect way of getting kids into the business of preparing for Christmas. The cookies can also be given a special role as decorations on the tree. Every country has its own selection of cookies for Christmas. Another gastronomic tradition associated with Christmas is the gingerbread house. Ginger's an ancient spice that originated in Asia. During the middle ages it was the second most popular spice right after black pepper. And during the 1500s bakers began adding it to breads and cookies. German bakers loved it ... and the city of Nuremberg became the gingerbread capital of the world. The town's sculptors, wood carvers and goldsmiths began forming the gingerbread into hearts, angels, men, animals and houses. The beverage of choice is often eggnog. Eggnog is related to a series of drinks made from milk and wine that go back for hundreds of years. When wine and milk drinks arrived in colonial America we dropped the wine and replaced it with rum. Rum drinks were called grog and some historians believe that this particular recipe was known as egg and grog. Which eventually became eggnog. 

Almost everything associated with Christmas is about remembering. One of the most powerful triggers for memory is music. Accordingly, the Christmas season at Biltmore Estate is filled with music. The winter garden was often used for musical presentations by the Vanderbilts ... and during my visit the room was being used by Rita Hayes who was playing a flute and Donna Germano who's specialty is the Celtic harp. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1897, eight year old Virginia O'Hanlon, the daughter of a New York City doctor, wrote to a local newspaper and asked, “was there really a Santa Claus”? Francis Church, a correspondent for the paper, answered with is famous column, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”. The column recommended that Americans be generous of spirit, love their fellow man, and even in the darkest days of winter trust that the sun, which was also the name the newspaper, would return. It recommends that we all have a positive vision of the future. From Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, I'm Burt Wolf.

He sprang to his sleigh ... to his team gave a whistle ... and away they all flew like the down of the thistle. But I heard him explain as he drove out of site ... Merry Christmas to all ... and to all a goodnight.