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Christmas is the best of times in which to visit Historic Houses

OBX Travel News


Need a Little Christmas? This House Has a Lot!

Q: We fell in love with this house because there was a perfect place for the Christmas tree — in the front hall beside the stairs! I’ve been widowed for four years

— no tree, too sentimental — but this year I’m ready. The trouble is that my family, including my new romantic interest, thinks it’s crazy. Maybe I should settle for a garland of greens

down the stair rail? Or maybe this is not really a question about decorating?

A: What could be more decorative than Christmas with all the trimmings! And what could be more healing than a great, sparkling evergreen soaring up the stair well?

Never mind that Christmas trees trace back to pagan customs. Even the heathen can appreciate their festive effect on all the senses, from the twinkle of the tree lights to the smell of the Great Outdoors, brought inside for a precious few weeks every winter.

No wonder, then, that Christmas trees, greens and other decorations fill both smaller private houses and great historic home that are open to the public with special zest this time of year — a fact not lost on authors Patricia Hart McMillan and Katharine Kaye McMillan. 

Also an interior designer (Pat) and a psychologist (Katharine), the mother-daughter team celebrates the season in two colorful volumes, “Christmas at Historic Houses” (Schiffer Publishing, Their books take us on a tour of remarkable houses both here and abroad, all in their best holiday dress.

As the authors point out, “Christmas is the best of times in which to visit Historic Houses.” The decorations, designed and installed by true artists, will not only raise your holiday spirits, they’ll send you away with souvenir ideas to try at home … even if “home” is a far cry from the palatial Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, pictured here in the Christmas glory that attracts some 250,00 visitors from November to January.

They flock to admire decorations that start going up in mid-October (planning takes all year long). Which is understandable when you’re dealing with more than 100 trees, 1,000+ wreaths, l,500 poinsettias and 20,000 feet of garlands. The photo we show here pictures the nearly 40-foot evergreen in the estate’s legendary Banquet Hall (3,000 square feet with 70-foot ceilings), wearing more than 1,000 ornaments, each painstakingly hung by hand.

Over the top, or OTT, as the Brits say? 

Actually, the outsized annual celebration is an appropriate paean to George W. Vanderbilt, the man who built the immense Renaissance-style chateau just in time to throw its inaugural party on Christmas Eve, l895. His grandson, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil — who, the McMillans write, “slid down Biltmore’s banisters as a boy” — carries on the festive tradition more than a century later.

Still America’s largest private home, Biltmore is worth the trip any time of year. Just bring your best hiking shoes: There are 250 or so rooms under its four-acre roof — including surprises like six portraits by John Singer Sargent. Outside, the 8,000 acres include gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, plus woods, fields, and an active vineyard. For more information, visit the Biltmore website.

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