Our Annual Christmas Party
Written By Leslie Klingner
For more than 120 years, Biltmore has celebrated the holidays with a party for employees and their families. Today's annual gathering begins with a warm welcome from Bill Cecil Jr., great grandson of George Vanderbilt. The party is something staff looks forward to every year, and it's a wonderful opportunity to see co-workers and their loved ones fill the halls of Biltmore House. Children sit on Santa’s lap and whisper their wishes, while staff members hand them gift chosen as carefully for them as those that Edith Vanderbilt selected for earlier generations. This beloved tradition was started by George Vanderbilt when he first opened his new home on Christmas Eve 1895.
Making a list and checking it twice
In October 1898, George and Edith Vanderbilt returned to Biltmore after a June wedding in Paris and an enviably long honeymoon. Mrs. Vanderbilt quickly settled into her new home and became involved in the lives of the families living on the estate. Within weeks of her arrival, our archival correspondence documents that she had already begun planning the holiday celebrations for estate staff.
Each year, Edith gathered the names of each of the children on the estate and carefully selected items she thought they would like. A “Christmas Tree Fund” was established to purchase gifts. Anna Wheeler, the wife of estate veterinarian and a close friend of Edith Vanderbilt, sometimes helped with the holiday preparations. In an unpublished memoir, Anna fondly described these special times:
“Mrs. Vanderbilt kept a book in which the individual presents were recorded yearly; her idea was to avoid duplication, but it served another purpose in assisting [her] in the better knowledge of each family. It was just another example of her predominate kindness and her executive ability. Mrs. Vanderbilt did the buying, and labeling and wrapping of all those many gifts.”
Gifts for all
Given the Vanderbilts’ conscious support of the community, it’s no surprise that they believed in buying local. Edith made a point of purchasing the majority of toys and gifts from area merchants, though some specialty items were also ordered from F.A.O. Schwartz, an upscale department store in New York City. For the adults, gifts tended to be practical in nature. For her first Christmas here, Edith purchased comforters, mufflers and shawls from H. Redwood & Co. in Asheville. For the youngest members of the estate, treats of special sweets, clothing, games, and toys were standard gifts. Leaving no detail un-attended, Mrs. Vanderbilt personally labeled and wrapped these goodies, using one of the bedrooms in Biltmore House as her staging area. Anna recalled that the room “assumed the appearance of a Santa Clause storage place.”
Describing a scene almost identical to what still takes place today, Mrs. Wheeler wrote, “Every family received a package which contained a gift for each member. The brilliant tree, in its magnificent setting… the faces of those surrounding it, and the beautiful and gracious hostess are never to be forgotten.”
Enjoy our seasonal celebration with your family
— Featured image: Children of a Biltmore employee enjoy meeting Santa and Mrs. Claus at Biltmore's annual Christmas party
— First image: Santa and Mrs. Claus listen to children's Christmas wishes
— Second image: Receipt for Edith Vanderbilt's 1898 Christmas order from F.A.O Schwartz in New York
— Third image: Floral Design Manager Cathy Barnhardt enjoys Biltmore's Christmas party with her family, ca. 2010