As I wound down the narrow road, I felt anticipation build. Every bend of the foliage and arc of the bridges increased my expectancy. When the shuttle bus rounded the last corner, I gasped as the 55-foot-tall Norway spruce and encircling evergreens illuminated the front lawn.
Over a century ago, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted suggested this spectacular approach to land owner George Vanderbilt: “I suggest the most striking and pleasing impression of the Estate will be obtained if an approach can be made that shall have throughout a natural and comparatively wild and secluded character… until the visitor passes with an abrupt transition into the enclosure of the trim, level, open, airy, spacious, thoroughly artificial court, and the Residence, with its orderly dependencies, breaks suddenly and fully upon him.”
Mr. Olmsted achieved his impact. This country retreat, which George Vanderbilt would call Biltmore, first opened on Christmas Eve of 1895 with mistletoe, holly, and hand-made garlands throughout the house. One hundred fifty-plus years later, I, too, visited at Christmastime.
Upon entry inside the house, it is evident that something like royalty lived here. Gilded sconces bordered the walls, reflecting light from the carefully placed mirrors and polished brass vases. A grand spiral staircase spiraled to the left, ushering guests up four floors. The weight of the outside wall offset the weight bearing down on each step of the stairs. In the top center of this cantilevered staircase, a massive 1,700-pound chandelier attached to the roof and illuminated each floor simultaneously.
Of the 250 rooms of the house, the first-floor atrium is my favorite. This glass-roofed “winter garden” invites light through its symmetrical dome, while arches of oak and walnut frame the glass to emphasize the craftsmanship. Created as an exquisite display space for exotic plants, this sunken, octagonal room is adorned with spruce, holly, and dozens of multi-colored poinsettias this time of year.
As we gathered near, carols filled the air as a local choir, accompanied by a few simple strings, performed Victorian-style holiday music. Closing my eyes, I listened to the crystal clear words of the young voices. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem! Come and behold Him, born the King of angels!”
My mind gathered above the exquisite trappings, into one completed moment of contentment and wonder. The God of all existence descended to the earth, encapsulated by the folds of flesh, and manifested Himself to connect. “Sing, choirs of angels. Sing in exultation, O sing, all ye bright hosts of heaven above! Glory to God, all glory in the highest!”
As melody melded with memory, the insight of heaven widened a bit for me that day. It was suddenly evident that these beautifully sculptured surroundings held no comparison to His majestic radiance. My heart leapt knowing my free gift of spiritual sonship far surpassed the status of a mere ticket-holding visitor to a grand estate.
“Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning. Jesus, to Thee, be all glory giv’n; Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
“O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!”