ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- It was goodbye Halloween, hello Christmas at Biltmore Estate Thursday morning, where a freshly cut 34-foot Fraser fir was hauled into the big house to begin a two-month holiday celebration.
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The fir -- one of 68 decorated trees inside the house -- arrived by horse-drawn wagon as hundreds of Biltmore visitors waited in a biting wind. Santa and his wife were also on hand, as was a driver wearing a stovepipe hat.
With military precision, several dozen Biltmore staffers rolled the tree onto a set of poles, then carefully brought it through the front doors where it was snaked past the indoor Winter Garden and into the Banquet Hall. There, the team used ropes and manpower to hoist the tree into place and nail it into a wooden stand.
The whole affair took about 20 minutes.
"I look forward to this every year," said Rick Conard, Biltmore's vice president of operations, who directed the tree raising crew. "It's pretty exciting. We've done it a long time, and there have been a few mishaps, but nothing major."
Getting it right is crucial, because the Christmas at Biltmore festivities (starting Saturday and running through Jan. 1) is extremely popular, spokeswoman LeeAnn Donnelly said. About 300,000 visitors will head to Biltmore during the celebration, about a third of the estate's total annual visitation.
Once the tree was in place, it fell to Kathy Barnhardt and her decorating team to fill the tree with 500 electric lights, 500 ornaments and to place 500 gift boxes at its foot. She's been part of the Christmas at Biltmore celebration for 35 of its 38 years.
Each year, Barnhardt makes changes in the tree decorations to tie in with a theme -- this time, "we are using colors (on the tree) to enhance the tapestries (in the Banquet Hall)," she said. "Gold and red -- that's the color theme in here."
The tree will be fully decked out when Christmas at Biltmore begins Saturday morning. But it won't have a long shelf life.
"This tree is changed out in 30 days" and replaced with a fresh fir, Conard said.
The next step will be the mulching machine, where the remains will be scattered on the estate.