Each holiday season, Biltmore Estate, the western North Carolina historic home of business magnate George Vanderbilt, draws about 400,000 visitors from around the world for its annual Christmas at Biltmore event. Monstrous evergreens, draped in lights by the thousands, dot the expansive grounds — which include a conservatory, winery, stables and more — and detailed seasonal decorations trim every one of the 250 rooms in the French Renaissance chateau.
True, Biltmore may be over the top for those with humbler dwellings or budgets, but even if you can’t pitch a 35-foot Fraser fir in your dining room or host a get-together in this era of social distancing, there are still things you can do to elevate your holiday decorating.
“For this year, if we were looking at what’s essential and nonessential, I hope people get a chance to slow down and spend time with your family,” however non-traditionally, says Lizzie Borchers, Biltmore’s floral manager, who crafts the vision for each year’s decorations and oversees the team charged with transforming the estate into a warm, sparkling wonderland. “Christmas is the ultimate time for that.”
We recently spoke with Borchers by phone. Here are her suggestions for creating an inviting holiday home.
“This year more than ever, we feel like Christmas is going to be important. Think about going back to your roots,” she says. For Borchers, that meant channeling 1895, the family’s first Christmas at Biltmore, with classic elements in red, deep burgundy and gold. “We’ve tried to go for a very traditional feel.”
The team works with the museum services staff to find inspiration in letters between Vanderbilt and his mother, or the estate manager. “George had some special requests that [first] year, including wagon loads of holly to decorate the house,” Borchers says. “We also talked with the museum team about an ice-skating-inspired tree, and we learned that Cornelia Vanderbilt used to ice skate on the estate’s Front Lawn.”
Even during the pandemic, people celebrated weddings, retirements and births this year. Borchers recommends incorporating those special events into your holiday decorations. “In Victorian times, they saved locks of hair,” Borchers says. “Maybe you got married and saved flowers from that bouquet. You can press them inside an ornament or dry them in a glass ball to commemorate big life events.”
Tell a story on your tree
Borchers also incorporates seasonal elements — ice skates, sleds, musical instruments — on the 55 hand-decorated trees at Biltmore. “I love decorating with things that aren’t necessarily ornaments,” she says. “That can tell such a story on a tree.”
For theme ideas, “you can take inspiration from something simple, like a piece of art or a fabric,” she says. In the Tapestry Gallery at Biltmore, Borchers incorporates teal and gold streaming ribbons on the tree, which tie in the room’s featured antique tapestries.
Other decorations have featured countries George Vanderbilt visited during his travels. “We had a lot of Santas, and each Santa represented a different country and how [that culture] sees Santa. The travels connected it back to the estate,” Borchers says.
She also recommends making your Christmas decor suit the look of your home or environment. In the stables at Biltmore, for example, Borchers creates an equestrian look featuring horseshoes and leather, with nontraditional elements, such as riding crops, on the tree. For a coastal home, think seashells, sand or cocktail umbrellas.
Protect original items — but don’t dismiss damaged goods
When using personal or family heirlooms in decorating, make a copy of the item first. “If an item is precious, especially photos or paper things, you don’t want to damage or compromise those,” Borchers says. Have professional copies made, “then string together old photos and make a garland, or Mod Podge an ornament with sheet music or photographs.
“It’s so wonderful when ornaments have survived the years,” Borchers adds, but heirloom items can break or become damaged during moves or because of insecure or insufficient packing. “If you can find a special place to feature those items, or preserve them in another way, that’s great.” If a sentimental ornament breaks, Borchers suggests preserving the broken pieces in a frame or inside a glass ornament that can be hung on the tree.
Pay attention to details
Although starching and ironing ribbon may seem over the top, it’s a common practice at Biltmore. Together, Borchers and her team hand-make 60 bows for the Biltmore House, and twice that many to cover the rest of the estate.
“For us, a bow isn’t just a bow,” she says. “It’s about the right bow in the right place.” Some rest flush against a mantel, while others are made by graduating the ribbon, loop by loop, to make very large bows. For a tree topper, the bow is nestled in a series of loops, with ribbon going down.
The largest tree inside the Biltmore House is a fresh 35-foot Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall, but there are many others. The smallest tree is a tiny table topper in the Morland bedroom. “There are spaces, even in Biltmore House, as big as it is, where you don’t need to go with the largest tree,” Borchers says. “Maybe there’s a space on a side table where a tabletop tree is a perfect addition.”
And although the tree is important, consider the entire room when decorating. “A fireplace mantel may need garland or a wreath or arrangements,” she says. “You’re creating a full look, so when you walk into a room, it brings you that spirit and warm, fuzzy feeling.”
Know tree-trimming basics
To hang tree lights, Borchers advises avoiding the common round-and-round method. “It’ll make you dizzy, and it won’t look good,” she says. “When we light the trees, we work the light down the row of every branch to get the light all the way in. You want to make sure it’s even, that the brightness is appropriate.” She uses dimmers to tone down the light, if necessary.
She also relies on a “squint test”: stepping back and squinting until the lights blur. “It allows you to see where you may have a dark spot,” she says.
Once trees are lit, Borchers and her team unpack everything before they start hanging ornaments. “Most people, I think, open up that box and start putting things on the tree,” she says. “We use a process of the larger ornaments, deeper in, going on first.” Longer finials, icicles and teardrops are saved for last.
She uses greenery to fill bare spaces. “Especially with a faux tree, I love mixing in another type of evergreen, maybe a long-needle pine stuck in a blue spruce tree.”
Diversify textures and repurpose materials
At Biltmore, workers incorporate velvet, metallic, satin, burlap and printed cotton elements whenever possible. “Bringing fabric into a tree, with ribbon, really can help provide contrast. People can want everything to match, but really, when something is completely different, like using a metallic with something that’s much more textured — that’s not something to shy away from,” Borchers says.
And for creative and reusable textures, try old flannel sheets or outdated lace clothing. “To make a long ribbon streamer, you’ll need a lot of fabric, like from a large plaid shirt,” she says. “Incorporate lace elements, or add bells to the holes of an old leather belt to make carriage jingle bells.”
Use natural elements
Cinnamon sticks, tallow berry and acorns, which are part of the Vanderbilt family crest, are used throughout the Biltmore House. “Fresh greenery, like magnolia, is great, because it’s beautiful fresh, and it dries well,” Borchers says.
Cranberries are ideal for stringing or covering topiary form from craft stores, she says. “Cover it with fabric first, and then pin them in or use hot glue. You can work with different heights and make a whole collection of them.” Christmas topiaries, she adds, work well with other natural materials, such as acorns, feathers, oranges or apples.
Original story ran in the December 10, 2020 online and print edition of The Washington Post.