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Labor of Love: Cathy Barnhardt Looks Back on 40 Years of Christmas at Biltmore

Posted on 10/26/2017 by Jean Sexton Comments(8)

Now in its fourth decade, Christmas at Biltmore has become a beloved annual tradition for both staff and guests of Biltmore. It is a holiday experience like no other, with more than 50 hand-decorated and styled Christmas trees gracing America’s Largest Home®—including the traditional 35-foot Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall—plus hundreds of wreaths, thousands of lights, and miles of garland that extend across the estate.

Cathy Barnhardt decorating for Christmas at BiltmoreChristmas at Biltmore

The celebration wasn’t always this elaborate—just ask Cathy Barnhardt, Floral Displays Manager. When she came to work for the estate 40 years ago, Christmas at Biltmore had happened exactly one time before. As part of her job she was asked to “do Christmas,” which amounted to decorating five trees inside Biltmore House.

“I went to work at Biltmore straight out of college, and I didn’t know much about Christmas decorating or Gilded Age décor,” Cathy recalled. “For my first Christmas here, my mom and I sat at a card table and made paper ornaments to hang on the trees!”

Design boards to help set the tone and mood of Christmas at BiltmoreMaking a change

After planning 40 and implementing 39 holiday seasons at Biltmore, Cathy retired this year. Developing and shaping the Floral Displays program at Biltmore has been her life’s work, and she leaves an indelible stamp across the estate, embodying Biltmore’s gracious hospitality with four decades of creative and elegant designs.

This year’s holiday theme is “A Vanderbilt Christmas,” a fitting finish to Cathy’s career because she always starts her planning with Vanderbilt stories. 

“As a child growing up in New York, George Vanderbilt loved Christmas, and his journals reflect how his holidays were centered around traditions and family,” said Cathy. “And the fact he chose to open Biltmore to family at Christmas 1895, even though the house wasn’t completely finished, tells us how much he loved this season.”

The Library fireplace during Candlelight Christmas Evenings at BiltmoreCandlelight Christmas Evenings

As night falls over Biltmore, Cathy also loves to see Biltmore House begin to glow with candlelight and firelight, changing the mood and the experience. Candlelight Christmas Evenings allow guests to step back in time, experiencing the estate more like Vanderbilt’s guests did that first Christmas Eve 1895. On the Front Lawn, a lit 55-foot Norway spruce surrounded by 20 illuminated evergreens—70,000 lights in all—sets the tone. Soft luminaries line the walkway to the house.

“We started doing Candlelight in response to guests’ requests. At that time, we were only open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights,” Cathy explained. “We would work during the day and be at Candlelight at night. I was one of the candle lighters and got to listen to the musicians. Our guests loved it from the beginning.”

Through the years, the small gap between daytime and Candlelight Christmas Evenings remains one of Cathy’s favorite times. “The first evening I take a 30-minute break and simply walk through Biltmore House. It’s quiet, and I see all the planning come together and really look at decorations through our guests’ eyes,” she said. “I have loved that!”

Cathy Barnhardt and her team choosing a Banquet Hall Christmas treeLeaving a legacy

"When I started there were only 50 employees, now we have more than 2,000,” Cathy said. 

Her team of seven full-time designers and 10 reserve staff members will continue Biltmore’s incredible decorating heritage, and she has full confidence in them.

“All these folks are awesome, creative people and great designers. Many of them have been here for 15–20 years! I’ve been blessed to work with them, and I will miss them,” said Cathy. “But what a wonderful opportunity this has been for someone like me who loves art and history and flowers!”

Decorative elements for Christmas at BiltmoreVisit tips

Christmas at Biltmore can be a lot to take in, especially for first-time visitors, so Cathy advises guests to start with the daytime experience, and then come back for Candlelight Christmas Evenings

Featured images
-- Main image: Cathy Barnhardt at Biltmore House
-- First image: Cathy Barnhardt with
Christmas at Biltmore decorations, ca. 1990
-- Second image: Planning boards to help set the tone and mood for
Christmas at Biltmore
-- Third image: The Library fireplace lit for Candlelight Christmas Evenings
-- Fourth image: Cathy, members of her team, and a staff member from Andrews Nursery in Newland, NC, search for the perfect Banquet Hall Christmas tree
-- Fifth image: A selection of ornaments and decorations for
Christmas at Biltmore

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Posted on 11/21/2017 By Jane M

Congratulations on your retirement Cathy! What a wonderful legacy you are leaving! Jane McDonnold

Posted on 11/20/2017 By Marylyn S

Hi, Cathy! I wish you well in your retirement, and I will never forget the wonderful talk you gave at the convention of The Golden Glow of Christmas Past at the Crowne Plaza in 2012. Thank you for doing that and letting people know all about Christmas at Biltmore.

Posted on 11/19/2017 By Dede W

Cathy, How special to see how Biltmore honored you! Congratulation and Best Wishes on your retirement. You will be missed! Blessings to you!

Posted on 11/19/2017 By Nancy P

Cathy, I knew when I lived next door to your great family that you were going to be exceptional. You inherited a lot of talent from your mother and added to it. On one of my early visits to the House and walked up to the gathering room I said "this looks just like Marion Lyda! Can't believe you are retiring but you deserve more play time. So glad your family was part of my life and Norm's. Good memories!

Posted on 11/15/2017 By Cathy O

Best wishes on your retirement!!! Since moving away I have missed visiting the Estate, especially at Christmas. You were so good at explaining to me the choice of theme and how it translated to the family traditions. I was always so impressed by the wonderful job you and your crew did in the decorating for all seasons. I am sure you were a big part of how Biltmore has grown over the years. True beauty to see! Thanks for all the years. Wishing you and your family blessings in the future.

Posted on 11/12/2017 By MARY NEAL S

What a fantastic legacy you leave. I was excited to find this article when planning my first Candlelight tour to Biltmore. We were friends as children and even then your creativity was endless. Best wishes !

Posted on 11/11/2017 By Sue H

Hi Cathy, Sue Hall aka Munsey here. We were at UT together. Congratulations on your retirement! And all the best for the next phase of life. I was always impressed with your talent in school and have so enjoyed all you have accomplished at Biltmore! I love coming to the house and gardens. You truly have left a legacy! All the best! Sue

Posted on 11/05/2017 By NANCY A

Congratulations on your retirement, Cathy. Having known you since kindergarten I believe you were born to perform this incredible job!