Travels & Traditions: Celebrating Christmas at Biltmore Estate - #307

BURT WOLF: Ancient astronomers believed that the sun traveled around the earth on a giant track. Every day it would move along covering a distance equal to its own width. It took six months to travel from its farthest point in the North to its farthest point in the South. When it got to the end of the track, it would turn around and head back.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The most northerly point on the track was known as the Tropic of Cancer; the most southerly, the Tropic of Capricorn. Tropic is an ancient Greek word meaning the turning point. Whenever the sun would reach one of these turning points, it would stop and rest for a couple of days. That rest was known as the solstice. Solstice is a Latin word and it means the sun stands still. We have two of them a year. One takes place at the end of June and marks the brightest and longest day of the year, one takes place at the end of December and marks the shortest and darkest day of the year. Societies all over the world celebrate a solstice and one of the most important celebrations is known as Christmas.

This is Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. It was constructed at the end of the 1800s by George Vanderbilt, a member of one of the oldest families in America. And it stands as the largest private home in the United States. George first opened the estate to his friends and family on Christmas Eve, 1895. And ever since, Christmas has been an important celebration at Biltmore.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Vanderbilts were asked to open the estate to the public in the hope that it would create a tourist attraction and become a source of income for the local residents. Good idea. These days Biltmore has almost 1 million visitors annually, and it's easy to understand why. It's an extraordinary place, and particularly interesting during Christmas. 

The first floor is made up of the public rooms where the Vanderbilts lived as a family and entertained their guests. The area known as the Winter Garden is a glass-roofed space designed to look like an indoor jungle of exotic plants. On the walls surrounding the Winter Garden are copies of the Elgin Marbles that stood in the ancient Parthenon of Athens until Lord Elgin decided they would make a nice souvenir from his trip to Greece and brought them back home to the British Museum. It was a lot like taking home the Eiffel Tower to remind you of your visit to Paris. 

Off the Winter Garden is the banquet hall, the largest room in the house; 72 feet long, 42 feet wide and 70 feet high. This was where the Vanderbilts held their formal dinner parties and celebrated Christmas with the great tree. For centuries, the fireplace has been an important part of Christmas. Originally fireplaces were round and placed in the center of the home. It represented a link to the history of the family and a connection to heaven through the chimney. The fire inside symbolized emotional warmth, love and light. The Flemish tapestries on the walls were created during the 1500s and tell the story of Venus, the goddess of love, Mars, the god of war who was Venus' not so secret lover and her jealous husband, Vulcan, the god of fire. Talk about watching a soap opera while you're eating. 

Next to the banquet hall is the breakfast room. This is where the family took its meals. Much more intimate. And all the pictures are of nice relatives who behaved properly. 

Biltmore also has a billiard room where the guys hung out and shot pool or billiards. Pool is played on the table with pockets; billiards is played on the table without pockets. 

Of all the rooms at Biltmore, George Vanderbilt's favorite was probably the library. George was a serious scholar and loved to read. He amassed a collection of 23,000 books. The art on the ceiling was painted in the 1600s and brought here from a palace in Venice. The tapestry gallery runs for 90 feet between the entrance hall and the library. It was used as a sitting area and probably a ballroom. The tapestries are part of a set woven in Brussels in the mid 1500s and called "The Triumph of the Seven Virtues." There are also two portraits by John Singer Sergeant, a famous painter of the time; one of George Vanderbilt and one of his mother, Maria Louisa. On the opposite wall is a portrait of George's wife, Edith Vanderbilt, by James McNeil Whistler, who was on break from painting his mother. 

Mr. Vanderbilt's bedroom was on the second floor - heavily carved pieces in walnut, baroque chairs and a bathroom with hot running water. Very unusual at the time for western North Carolina. Down the hall is Mrs. Vanderbilt's bedroom. The oval shaped space is decorated in the style of Louis XV - very popular in France during the 1700s and copied by wealthy Americans in the 1800s. Silk wall coverings, cut velvet drapes, and between the bedrooms of Mr. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Vanderbilt was the oak sitting room, a private space connecting their separate apartments. It was modeled after the Great Hall at Hatfield House, a seventeenth century English estate that the Vanderbilts had once visited. It's the perfect location to inquire "My place or yours?" 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That's the house as it was presented to the guests of the Vanderbilts, but there's another side. The back of the house that kept the front of the house running. And in the interests of full disclosure, Biltmore House runs a butler's tour of the property. 


THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: Yes, may I help you?

BURT WOLF: Yes, I'm here to film the Butler's Tour.

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: And you would be?

BURT WOLF: I'm ... I'm Burt Wolf. I am a television journalist. 

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: I'm sure your family still loves you. Please come in. 

We're now entering the butler's pantry, which really was the hub of the systems of providing services for guests. We're essentially on top of the main kitchens. We're at the basement level below, so all the food was prepped below and then brought to this level. Foods that needed to be remained chilled were placed ...

BURT WOLF: Real refrigeration?

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: Real refrigeration here. And electric warming cabinet over on the other side of the kitchen to keep the foods warm.

BURT WOLF: Early for that.

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: Very early. For both, actually. And final presentation of foods were made here and then served in one of two directions, wherever the meal was being served. This is right off the banquet hall and/or the breakfast room, as well.

BURT WOLF: That was the dumbwaiter that brought it up.

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: The dumbwaiters that brought the food up, also that brought the china and crystal down from this second level of this ...

BURT WOLF: That's a big two-story closet.

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: That's right.

BURT WOLF: Very cool.

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: What we see here is a linen volt pattern of hand carved panel inset, a sign of hospitality and a sign that you would be entering now a guest family area.

BURT WOLF: So, as I leave the area that the servants were in and enter an area where I might meet the Vanderbilts or their guests, I will see this welcoming pattern ...

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: That's correct.

BURT WOLF: ... on the inside of the door.

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: That's correct. BURT WOLF: Aha. 

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: Lighter color changes, we moved into this area. Generally, the family guest areas had a bolder color scheme; terra cotta, coffee brown. And generally the staff areas were of a pastel color. 

BURT WOLF: So everybody knew where they were ...

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: That's correct.

BURT WOLF: by the colors of the walls.

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: We're going now to where the servants took their meals, the servants' dining room downstairs. Staff here were organized in a very rigid hierarchy. A steward would have been at the top, a scullery maid at the lower level, and staff took their meals according to the ranking they were in and in shifts in this particular room.

BURT WOLF: I see clocks all over.

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: Here's one in this room. Clocks appear in all the servant areas and, because of the design of the clocking system, the clocks were all kept in sync with each other. The time was accurately reported wherever staff worked so that their was no excuse of ...

BURT WOLF: Not being where you were supposed to be ...

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: Not being where you're supposed ...

BURT WOLF: when you were supposed to be there.


BURT WOLF: That is the back of the house.

THOMAS KNOX, BUTLER: And without the back of this house, there would have been no front.

BURT WOLF: So true.

Ancient societies from the Druids and the Celtics to the Franks and the Egyptians marked the dark days of the winter solstice by decorating their homes with evergreen plants. In Catholic communities, St. Nicholas, the Three Kings and the Christ child were represented in human likeness. German Protestants felt the representation of humans and animals was inappropriate, and during the 1500s introduced the Christmas tree as a counterbalance. 

The idea of a Christmas tree came to America in December of 1850 when Godey's magazine published a picture of Queen Victoria and her family standing around a small Christmas tree that was sitting on a table. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Queen's husband, Prince Albert, was German, and Christmas trees had been part of the German holiday tradition for centuries. Prince Albert was merely introducing his kids to what had happened in his own childhood, but anything that happened in the British royal household was immediately covered by the British press, and anything that was in the British press was immediately covered in the United States. 

One year later, in 1851, a farmer in the Catskill Mountains paid a license fee of $1 to the City of New York and set up the first official sidewalk concession for the sale of Christmas trees. The greenery of the forests slipped into town and everybody loved it. The first set of electric Christmas lights went onto the tree of Edward Johnson, who just happened to be the Vice President of Thomas Edison's electric company in New York. The establishment of Edison's electric company, his light bulb factory and the acceptance of Christmas as a legal holiday all took place within a few years. Electric lights were more economical than candles because they could be reused for years and perhaps, even more important, they were much safer that the candle's open flame. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For the same two reasons, money and safety, artificial trees became popular. During the 1890s, we began importing artificial trees from Germany that were made of goose feathers, and when the First World War cut off the supply from Germany, we began making them here in the United States. Today, Americans use more artificial trees than real ones, and some of the manufacturers offer them with the lights already attached to the branches. Just open the box and Christmas pops out. 

We think of F. W. Woolworth as the father of the five and dime store. But a big hunk of his fortune came as a Christmas gift. In 1880, he was wandering around the warehouse of a Philadelphia importer, looking for some really cheap toys to put in his store. The importer showed him a series of glass Christmas tree ornaments that he had imported from Germany. 

For hundreds of years, the German town of Lauscha had been a glass blowing center and, during the middle of the 1800s, began manufacturing glass Christmas tree ornaments in the shape of balls and reindeer. Woolworth thought the importer was whacko. The breakage during shipment would be enormous and if any of them got through in one piece, no one would know what to do with them anyway. The importer felt so strongly about the ornaments, he guaranteed the sale. If Woolworth didn't swell $25 worth, he'd get his money back. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The ornaments came into Woolworth's store just before Christmas and he put them out thinking, boy, am I wasting good retail space. Two days later, they were sold out. The next year, he stocked up even more and sold them out and more and more and more until he made $25 million on those little glass ornaments. And when the Second World War came along and put an end to trading with Germany, he taught the Corning Glass Works of Corning New York how to make the little Christmas tree ornaments and they didn't do badly, either. 

For a hundred years or so, a dominant image of Christmas in the United States has been Santa Claus. But who was Santa Claus before he hit the big time? During the fourth century, he was a bishop in what is now Turkey and he was famous for giving gifts to kids and dowries to young ladies who wanted to get married. He became a minor folk character in northern Europe, and arrived in New York City with the early Dutch settlers. 

The first important media exposure for Santa Claus came in the 1860s, when he showed up in a series of illustrations for Harper's Weekly. The artist was Thomas Nast. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: At the time, people were interested in the explorers who were heading to the North Pole and it was Nast who decided that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole. Nast's drawings showed him in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, big sacks of gifts behind him and stockings hung by the chimney with care. Nast got those ideas by the poem by Clement Moore called "A Visit From Santa Claus." And Moore got those ideas from Washington Irving, all of which is to say that our picture of Christmas started with the work of Washington Irving.

In 1931, Santa signed with Coca-Cola and has appeared in their holiday promotions ever since. And you thought Tiger Woods had a great agent! Santa in his present form is an American invention. The size of his stomach, his ruddy complexion, his fur-trimmed suit all speak to a national abundance. Santa stands there with a brand name product in his hand declaring that we are economically the richest nation in the world and proud of it. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And clearly, Santa is running a major international business. He's got his own factory, has a very sophisticated labor force. One hundred and fifty years before Federal Express, he had an airborne delivery system in place. He's got to be one of the world's leading authorities on the not-for- profit business

and I heard he was planning an e-commerce site when his funding dried up.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Originally, Christmas presents were for little kids. They were stuffed into stockings - the presents, not the kids. If you were good, you found little toys inside. If you were bad, you found coal and sticks. My stockings when I was a kid contained lots of coal and lots of sticks and an occasional potato, but my mother never told me why she was putting them in there. I thought she was putting them in there because she knew I loved barbecue. It worked out really nicely.

The tree was the holder for the simple gifts that were light enough to hang from the tree; usually nuts, candies and dried fruits that were placed into homemade containers that hung from the branches. There were some situations, however, where size can have a significant impact and in ways you would never expect. Biltmore, being the largest private home in North America, has some of the largest rooms and, accordingly, one of the largest Christmas trees. A big tree with strong branches can hold bigger presents. Nice! When the presents got too big to hang from the tree, they started showing up under the tree, but they were still clearly visible. No packaging. What you saw is what you got.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One of the most powerful forces to shape American industry was the War Between the States. Suddenly, the Union army was placing huge orders with manufacturers. We learned to mass produce. We even mass produced our Christmas presents.

During the 1860s, the first wrapped gifts showed up, always wrapped in plain paper held in place with ceiling wax or pins and later with string and tinsel cord. By the middle of the 1870s, everybody wrapped. Fancy wrapping paper arrived during the First World War, when Joyce Halls' little shop in Kansas City, Missouri, ran out of the solid color tissue and filled in with some French envelope lining paper that he used in his greeting card business. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: He sold out. Next year he bought some more and sold out again. So, he decided to start printing his own wrapping papers. Wanted a brand name. So he called it Hallmark. Some historians believe that the idea of wrapping a present is part of the Victorian passion for enclosing things, for disguising all intimacy, for holding off the anticipated. And, to tell you the truth, that's kind of a stretch for me. I tend to think a cigar is just a cigar. Nevertheless, 96 percent of all Christmas presents given in the United States are wrapped.

Perhaps the greatest single influence on Christmas dinner in the United States came from the meal described by Charles Dickens in "A Christmas Carol." He took the grand old family feast of the old English Christmas and downsized it for a single household. It became the perfect instructional manual for the American homemaker. In keeping with tradition, executive chef Steven Adams of Biltmore Estate, prepared a Christmas dinner. 

During the 1800s, Christmas began with oysters followed by a soup like pumpkin bisque. A fish course. Today, it's a side of gravlax cured in salt, sugar, dill, lots of black pepper and a little Cognac and Grand Marnier. Next, sweetbreads or pâté. And the roasted meat course. In the hierarchy of cooking, roasting has the most prestige. It is the technique of choice for festivals and special occasions. Steven is serving a leg of lamb stuffed with pine nuts and basil. After the roasted lamb, the roasted game arrives. Goose stuffed with onions in fresh sage and garnished with cranberries and cipollini onions. And the salad course, made up of fresh spinach, candied pecans, apple-smoked bacon and fresh citrus. All of this was washed down with Roman punch or mold wine. Guests were then offered cheese and fruit; Brie, Stilton and roasted pears that have been flavored with vanilla beans. And finally, dessert; a black walnut pie with a little sweet cream, plum pudding and English trifle. Nuts are often part of the Christmas meal. They represent the puzzle of life. You must work hard to get inside and discover the real value. 

In keeping with George Vanderbilt's original vision of an estate that was commercially productive, Biltmore has developed a winery. Settlers in North Carolina had been growing grapes and making wine as far back as colonial times, and this is very much in keeping with local tradition. Today, almost 60,00 vines thrive on the sloping acres of the western portion of the estate. Biltmore even dug its own lake next to the vineyards. The water creates a pocket of warmth near the vines and helps protect the young buds from late spring frosts. The estate cultivates Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot for their red wines and Chardonnay and Riesling for their whites and sparkling wines. And each year they produce a special wine for Christmas. The tasting rooms have more visitors than any other winery in North America. 

And visiting was very much part of George Vanderbilt’s plan for Biltmore. When the estate opened on Christmas Eve of 1895 it was filled with guests. His relatives and friends would often come for extended visits. And during those visits everything was done to make them feel completely at home. By June of 1900 Vanderbilt was thinking about building a hotel on the property. It took a hundred years for the idea to become a reality, but during the spring of 2001 the Inn at Biltmore Estate opened to the public. Documents in Biltmore’s archives indicate that the hotel was to be built on a hill and that is precisely what was done. It sits just above the winery with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Decedents of George Vanderbilt oversaw the design and construction of the Inn and their objective was to reproduce the type of gracious American resort that was available during the 1890’s.

Since 1986, Braidstream has been performing at Biltmore Estate. The music is heard throughout the house and especially at Christmas time. Paul Ghost Horse is on cello, Rita Hayes plays the flute, Donna Germano on Hammered Dulcimer, Jeff Johnson on guitar and David Cohen on percussion. They're playing “The Dance of the Burgermeister." 

Some people feel that the stack of gifts under the tree has turned Christmas into a national festival of consumption.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But I disagree. Christmas is the story of Christ - God giving his only child as a gift to humanity. And all we're doing is following the example by giving gifts to the people we love and the neediest of our fellow men. The United States is the most successful industrial society in the world, and there's no reason for us to be ashamed of our commercial ability. There's just a need for us to share. From the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, I'm Burt Wolf.