A Vanderbilt Christmas
Written By Leeann Donnelly
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. Below are some of the Vanderbilts’ yuletide traditions…and even a glimpse of the food they enjoyed during the holidays.
How did our 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.
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 and New Year’s meals in Biltmore House, 1904
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 Years 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.
The Christmas Day luncheon entrée consisted of venison steak (very likely from the estate deer herd), served with string beans, potatoes and cauliflower. The salad course consisted of roast partridge and salad. 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 salad 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 salad of Virginia ham and spinach followed. Christmas dessert consisted of plum pudding, ice cream and cake.
The New Years Eve luncheon began with fish cutlets, followed by braised rabbits and lamb chops served with potatoes, beets and stuffed tomatoes. Chicken salad followed, and dessert consisted of apple tapioca pudding, followed by coffee. New Years 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 salad.
New Years 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!