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Asheville's Biltmore Estate decked out for season

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11/9/2011 - Asheville's Biltmore Estate decked out for season
by Tony Kiss - Asheville Citizen Times

The Second Floor Sitting Room inside the Biltmore House offers a tree decorated with Asian fans, reflecting this year's international theme. 
The Second Floor Sitting Room inside the Biltmore House offers a tree decorated with Asian fans, reflecting this year's international theme. / John Fletcher/jfletcher@citizen-times.com

At many homes, putting up Christmas decorations is done in one quick evening.

But not at Asheville's famous Biltmore Estate, where Christmas is the year's biggest visitation season. Some 57 decorated trees are installed in the house, a process that started before Halloween.

It's all done now, thanks to Cathy Barnhardt and her crack team, and Candleight Christmas Evening tours start Friday.

"I love Christmas," said Barnhardt, Biltmore's floral display manager, a key player in placing the estate's holiday decorations for 34 of 35 years that Christmas at Biltmore has been celebrated. "This is the perfect job. I take great pride in being part of Christmas at Biltmore."

Not that that much first-hand information exists about how George Vanderbilt and his family celebrated the holidays. He officially opened the house at Christmas 1895, but "we don't have any photos," Barnhardt said.

"We have newspaper articles from the Citizen-Times and the New York papers, and we have interviews from people who worked here. We have to fill in the blanks," she said.

Some holiday traditions were unearthed from other Vanderbilt family homes and estates of that period. "I can't say that (all the decorations) are authentic to Biltmore or that he had 50 something trees, but we are inspired by true stories," Barnhardt said.

300K holiday guests

Getting it right is crucial, because Christmas at Biltmore has become the estate's biggest time for visitation, spokeswoman LeeAnn Donnelly said. "Generally, we see around one million visitors a year, and 300,000 visit during Christmas," she said.

For Barnhardt and her team, it's a year-round job. "Before these decorations come down, I will walk through the house, evaluate them, see what worked or didn't work and start thinking about next year."

Some of Biltmore's decorations are newer, but others are treasured ornaments from years gone by, "like German blown glass," she said. "The style today is different than what we got in the early days (of Christmas at Biltmore)."

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