Labor of Love: Cathy Barnhardt Looks Back on 40 Years of Christmas at Biltmore
Written By Jean Sexton
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.
Christmas 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!”
Making 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.”
Candlelight 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!”
Leaving 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!”
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.
— 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