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The Banquet Hall Tree: A Christmas at Biltmore Tradition
Posted on 10/21/2016 by Amy Dangelico Comments(3)
The 35-foot-tall Fraser fir selected for the Banquet Hall each year is always the tallest tree inside Biltmore House. Adorned with hundreds of lights and ornaments, the towering tree is a beloved Yuletide symbol that was introduced during the first Christmas at Biltmore.
Preparing for the first Christmas at Biltmore
While George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore House in October 1895, he didn’t formally open the house until Christmas Eve of that year. He invited his extended family from the north to a grand holiday housewarming party.
“Mr. Vanderbilt is to entertain in his chateau 300 guests from New York, who will arrive by special train. The scene of mirth and happiness which the yule-tide season will witness in this modern Aladdin’s palace will be the realization of even that lucky man’s wildest dreams…”
- Galveston Tribune as quoted by The Asheville Citizen Times*
Thanks to news articles and correspondence between George and his staff, we know that preparations for the big event were extensive and no detail was left unattended.
Managers debated which nearby county had the best holly and the most desirable mistletoe, while staff scouted the perfect candidate for what would become one of Biltmore’s most prominent holiday elements: the Banquet Hall Christmas tree.
Chauncey Beadle wrote estate manager 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.”
Christmas Eve 1895
Christmas Day 1895
At the time, Biltmore’s full domestic staff had yet to be hired, though George had temporarily employed local men and women for service during the holidays. On Christmas Day, George invited the estate’s many temporary and permanent employees and their children to the first Biltmore employee Christmas Party.
Still a bachelor at the time, he enlisted the help of Mrs. Charles McNamee to purchase gifts for the guests. (Edith Vanderbilt enthusiastically assumed this role after she and George married in 1898.)
George greeted everyone in the Banquet Hall mid-afternoon, where family members helped distribute gifts.
We imagine that most of the employees and their children had never seen anything like the Banquet Hall tree. At the time, fewer than 20% of US families brought Christmas trees into their homes, much less such an oversized tree with electric lights and hundreds of presents wrapped beneath it.
The tradition continues
George Vanderbilt’s hosting of family and employees at Christmas is a tradition that continued long after 1895.
Local and national newspapers published accounts of seasonal celebrations at Biltmore almost every year. And every year, those celebrations took place in the Banquet Hall, next to the tallest Christmas tree in Biltmore House.
Feature: The Banquet Hall Christmas tree
Top Right: Excerpt from the 1985 Biltmore House Guest Book
Left: Gertrude’s seating diagram of the first Biltmore Christmas dinner**
Right: Christmas ornament featuring the Vanderbilt emblem
*Sourced by an uncited newspaper from our Museum Services history files.
**Photo courtesy of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Whitney Museum of American Art, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers. Gift of Flora Miller Irving.
Posted on 12/07/2017 By B R
I love reading and hearing about Biltmore any time
Posted on 12/28/2016 By Kathy G
Visited Biltmore about twenty years ago in May. I would love to visit again during the Christmas season. I just love reading about the history.
Posted on 11/02/2016 By Lynn K
I toured the Biltmore at Christmas time many years ago and I have never since seen such awesome decorations!