On Christmas Eve 1895, George and Edith Vanderbilt formally opened the doors of their 250-room French Renaissance chateau in North Carolina, Biltmore House, for the first time to friends and family. George, Edith and their daughter, Cornelia, spent many Christmases together at Biltmore House, creating traditions that Biltmore continues to honor today.
Biltmore in 1895. Caption on photo is "Vanderbilt's Palace." Photo: Library of Congress
Mr. Vanderbilt’s descendants – the Cecil family, now the estate’s owners and caretakers – host the annual employee holiday party, just like the Vanderbilts did. The Cecil family makes sure each child of each estate employee receives a gift, a custom that Edith started when she was a young mother and hostess of Biltmore.
The Biltmore archivists say that Edith kept copious notes on what each child received each year to avoid repeating a gift in the years to follow. These lists exist, as well as receipts from FAO Schwarz detailing some of the toys and games she purchased for the children. Today, after Biltmore's last guests tour the House on the day of the employee party, a team from the special events department fills the Winter Garden floor with the 1,000+ wrapped gifts for the party, where Santa and the Cecils will hand them out to each child later that night.
Library. Photo credit; The Biltmore Company.
Biltmore’s archives are full of letters and documents detailing the lives of George and Edith Vanderbilt, their daughter, Cornelia, and many of their friends and family members who visited them at Biltmore. The following vignettes discuss the Vanderbilt’s yuletide traditions…and even some of the food they enjoyed during the holidays.
How did their Christmas tradition begin?
Although George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore House in October 1895, the house did not officially open to guests until Christmas Eve of that year. Great efforts were made to ensure all (or most!) would be ready by this special day. Mr. Vanderbilt was still a bachelor during the first Biltmore Christmas and his mother, Maria Louisa, presided as hostess.
Correspondence between Mr. Vanderbilt and his staff indicates that planning was intensive and no detail was left unattended. Managers debated which nearby county had the best holly and the most desirable mistletoe, while staff scouted for the perfect candidate for the Banquet Hall Christmas tree.
35-foot Fraser fir tree in the Banquet Hall. Photo Credit; The Biltmore Company.
Mr. Chauncey Beadle, estate horticulturalist, writes estate manager, Mr. Charles McNamee:
“I quite agree with you that we should have a very large tree for this occasion; in fact, I think a twenty foot tree in that large Banquet Hall would be rather dwarfed.”
When Mr. Vanderbilt's mother, several of his brothers and sisters and their spouses, and assorted nieces and nephews arrived, they were greeted in the Banquet Hall by a splendidly tall tree laden with gifts for estate workers. At the foot of the tree was a table piled high with family gifts. Because of this, the Banquet Hall has always been the focal point for Christmas celebrations in Biltmore House.
A family gathering ...
The family and guests gathered around the 40-foot Banquet Hall table for elaborate dinners served both evenings. Mr. Vanderbilt’s niece Gertrude kept a series of Dinner Books in which she recorded the seating arrangements of all of the parties and dinners she attended as a young woman, and she was one of the guests at the first Christmas dinner in Biltmore House. Gertrude kept two Dinner Books in 1895, and the Christmas meal at Biltmore House was the 193rd formal dinner that she attended that year. In her diagram of the dinner, she listed 27 Vanderbilt family members. It was said to be the largest gathering of the family since the death of William Henry Vanderbilt, George’s father, in 1885.
In addition to the grand meals and festive décor, stockings hung on mantles, plum puddings and mince pies were served, and George’s mother read “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to the children. It must have been a grand time -- one article even stated that the family exchanged gilded and jeweled Christmas cards!
Christmas & New Year’s Meals in Biltmore House
In 1904, George and Edith Vanderbilt were raising their 4-year-old daughter, Cornelia, in Biltmore House. The 1904 Menu Book, kept by cook Esther Anderson, contains luncheon and dinner menus for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Surprisingly, they are not the most elaborate meals included in the book. The 1904 Christmas Day luncheon featured a fairly light menu that began with clear broth, followed by broiled oysters.
December, 25 1904 – Christmas Day Luncheon
The Christmas Day luncheon entrée consisted of venison steak (very likely from the estate deer herd), served with string beans, potatoes and cauliflower. The salade course consisted of roast partridge and salade. Luncheon dessert consisted of apple tart, not surprising, since estate orchards produced over twenty varieties of apples. Coffee followed dessert and served as a separated course.
Christmas dinner began with Consommé Royale, a clear chicken broth thickened with tapioca and served with a savory garnish made from bullion, egg and herbs, poached in buttered molds, floating in the broth.
A fish course of broiled Spanish mackerel accompanied by cucumber salade came next. The main course featured roast turkey and cranberries, served with potatoes, peas and celery. The Vanderbilts ate turkey in one form or another on average every three days. Mrs. Doris Johnson, whose daughter-in-law, Ellen, was a Biltmore House cook at the turn of the century, recalled that turkey and dressing were Mr. Vanderbilt’s favorite of all the things Ellen cooked, and it is very likely that turkey was indeed one of Mr. Vanderbilt’s favorite foods. A salade of Virginia ham and spinach followed. Christmas dessert consisted of plum pudding, ice cream and cake.
1904 – New Year’s Eve Luncheon and Dinner
The New Year’s Eve luncheon began with fish cutlets, followed by braised rabbits and lamb chops served with potatoes, beets and stuffed tomatoes. Chicken salade followed, and dessert consisted of apple tapioca pudding, followed by coffee.
New Year’s Eve dinner began with either purée of chickens or consommé, followed by the fish course consisting of mousse of bass. The mousse was followed by an entrée of mushroom patties, and a relevé consisting of filets of beef with potatoes, spinach and baked macaroni. Roast partridge accompanied the salade.
New Year’s Eve dessert was Fanchonette, an “old-fashioned French cake [somewhat] like a pie made with rough puff pastry and a pastry cream filling” baked in a slow oven. After cooling, it is piped with meringue, sprinkled with sugar and baked until brown. Coffee followed dessert, and midnight toasts no doubt welcomed the New Year.
The Christmas Spirit
The following are two favorite Biltmore stories that truly illustrate how the Vanderbilts shared the spirit of the season.
Mr. Vanderbilt and the Tree
James Hamilton was a cabinetmaker during the construction of Biltmore House and was asked to stay on when the house was completed.
One Christmas, when James was too busy to go out and cut a tree, he sent his twin sons to find a tree for the family. He told them not to dare go near the gardens. Unfortunately, the tree they chose was one of two rare blue spruce trees that Mr. Vanderbilt is said to have brought back from Europe and planted on either sides of the Esplanade.
It was a beautiful tree, six feet tall, and perfectly shaped. When James came home and saw the tree that they had cut, “he almost went into shock.” He immediately took the twins with him to Biltmore House to find Mr. Vanderbilt and apologize.
Mr. Vanderbilt was not upset; in fact, he asked James please not to punish the boys, since they had no way of knowing that the trees were unusual, and he would find something to replace it. He told them not to worry, to go home and enjoy the tree.
They did not, however, enjoy that Christmas. It took a while before their father overcame his shock. He supervised the annual cutting of the tree after that.
Mrs. Vanderbilt and the Glass Ornament
Eugenia Halyburton Chandler grew up at Biltmore, the daughter of estate workers. One Christmas, Eugenia’s present was paper dolls which left her less than impressed. She politely returned the gift to Mrs. Vanderbilt, who asked if there was something else she would prefer. Eugenia pointed to a glass ornament hanging on the tree. Mrs. Vanderbilt gave her the ornament, which began Eugenia’s tradition of collecting glass ornaments.
Known as one of the Southeast’s most beloved and storied holiday vacation destinations, Christmas at Biltmore daytime tours begin on Nov. 7, 2014, and will run through Jan. 11, 2015. Candlelight Christmas Evenings, offering evening candlelight tours of Biltmore House, take place Nov. 7, 2014 through Jan. 3, 2015. For more information about Christmas at Biltmore, visit www.biltmore.com