Biltmore’s History of Giving Back During the Holidays

Written By Meghan Forest

Posted 12/01/23

Updated 12/04/23

Estate History

Christmas has always been a special time at Biltmore, from George Vanderbilt’s opening of Biltmore House on Christmas Eve 1895 to the Christmas at Biltmore celebrations of today. The holidays at Biltmore have also been a time of intentionally giving back to the community.

Although George and Edith Vanderbilt made philanthropic contributions year-round, Christmas provided an opportunity to connect with the residents of Asheville and Western North Carolina to share in the spirit of the season.

Learn more about this tradition of giving back during the holidays.

Giving back through healthcare

Archival photograph of George Vanderbilt and his cousins traveling in Europe in the late 1800s
George Vanderbilt (standing, right) traveling in Spain with his cousin Clarence Barker (seated, left), niece Maria Louisa Schieffelin (seated, right), and her husband William Jay Schieffelin (standing, left), 1891. The Vanderbilts created Clarence Barker Memorial Hospital in Asheville, NC, in honor of Barker who passed away at Biltmore in 1896.

A particular priority for the Vanderbilts was making high-quality medical care more accessible to the community. George, Edith, and Cornelia Vanderbilt financially supported area hospitals including the Clarence Barker Memorial Hospital (later the Biltmore Hospital), which they founded in Biltmore Village to provide care to residents of the estate and the area.

During the holidays, however, the Vanderbilts contributed a little extra to extend cheer to the staff and patients. Beginning as early as 1903, Edith Vanderbilt ensured patients in the wards of the Clarence Barker Memorial Hospital, Mission Hospital, and General Hospital No. 19 at Oteen had a festive supply of estate-grown holly, mistletoe, wreaths, and Christmas trees. One House Mother at General Hospital No. 19 assured Edith that her annual donations “provide Christmas Cheer for the patients in this hospital.”[1]

Faith and philanthropy

All Souls Church in Biltmore Village, ca. 1906
Archival photograph of All Souls Church in Biltmore Village, ca. 1906.

Christmas also provided an opportunity for the Vanderbilts to grow closer to their faith community at All Souls’ Church in Biltmore Village. From the earliest days of All Souls’, George Vanderbilt not only attended services but found ways to include members of the church in his Christmas celebrations.

In 1896, for example, George Vanderbilt hosted members of the choir and administration of All Souls’ at a Christmas Day tea held at Biltmore House. The Asheville Citizen-Times remarked George “entertained his guests in a manner that made the evening a memorable one. After tea, the guests were shown over Biltmore House and made to feel thoroughly at home.”[2] George and Edith hosted the choir each year they were at Biltmore for Christmas until 1913.

Giving back through employee Christmas parties

Archival invitation to the 1909 Biltmore Estate employee Christmas party
Invitation to the 1909 Biltmore employee Christmas party.

A new tradition began in 1897 when All Souls’ Church was selected as the location for Biltmore’s employee Christmas party. Festive décor included a large star made of holly and pine hanging from the center of the chancel arch along with live pine trees growing in boxes in each corner of the building.

A 25-foot spruce replaced the choir stalls, “beautifully dressed with gleaming ornaments and lights and gifts, and from its topmost branch was suspended a large figure of an angel which seemed to waft a benediction upon the assembly and the ceremonies of the night.”[3] While the décor was not quite so elaborate in subsequent years, the 1902 decorations included a star made up of 200 incandescent lightbulbs in what must have been a dazzling display accompanying Christmas services.[4]

Western Union telegraph message from Edith Vanderbilt Gerry to everyone at Biltmore Estate for Christmas 19XX
Western Union “Holiday Greetings” telegram message from Edith Vanderbilt Gerry to everyone at Biltmore Estate.

Even after George Vanderbilt’s passing and Edith’s eventual marriage to Senator Peter Gerry of Rhode Island in 1925, she continued the tradition of giving back by coordinating Christmas donations from afar while her daughter Cornelia and husband John Cecil actively supported local hospitals.

Making Christmas bright for children

Archival photograph of a decorated Christmas tree at the Biltmore Parish Day School in 1897
Archival photograph of Christmas decorations at the Biltmore Parish Day School, ca. 1899.

Also bringing cheer to the children of Biltmore Village was the Biltmore Parish Day School, run by All Souls’ Church in the Parish School building beginning in 1898. With their focus on creating memorable Christmases for their employees, it is no surprise that George and Edith also supported the Parish Day School’s holiday celebrations.

The All Souls’ Yearbook for 1899 reveals separate parties were held for older and younger children, both involving Christmas trees, gifts, and refreshments. An 1899 All Souls’ Yearbook notes the importance of this party: “As it was the only Christmas some had, we endeavored to make it as bright as possible… some of them had never seen a lighted tree before, it was a genuine delight to them.”[5]

George and Edith established the operating fund with which the school funded its yearly Christmas celebrations, as well as provided scholarships to students who could not cover the $10 annual tuition.

A Vanderbilt tradition of giving back

Two girls looking up at Christmas lights
Starting on the very first Christmas morning in 1895, the annual Biltmore Employee Christmas party has been a special annual tradition for employees and their families that continues today.

The Vanderbilts firmly believed in giving back as their responsibility to the communities in which they lived, a belief that became especially clear during the holidays. At Christmastime, the Vanderbilts gave in personal ways, ensuring that those without access to Vanderbilt resources still experienced a happy Christmas.

The philanthropic efforts of the Vanderbilt family were not only directed toward their neighbors and children within the community but also extended beyond the boundaries of Biltmore Estate. Their involvement created a foundation that has guided the philanthropic efforts of their descendants throughout generations, both during the holidays and beyond.

[1] Letter held in the Biltmore House Archives, 1919.

[2] Asheville Citizen-Times, December 26, 1896; p. 1.

[3] Asheville Citizen-Times, December 27, 1897; p. 2.

[4] Asheville Citizen-Times, December 26, 1902; p. 5.

[5] All Souls’ Church Yearbook, 1899.

White V

What was George Vanderbilt’s vision for Biltmore? How does the legacy live on today?