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As families around the globe begin to haul out the holly and deck the halls, experts at Biltmore and Asheville’s inns and bed and breakfasts are giving the gift of free tree decorating ideas, easy holiday recipes and suggestions for homemade Christmas gifts. The editors at ExploreAsheville.com have gathered a collection of holiday ideas, tips and Christmas craft tutorials sure to spice up your holidays.

Ever since George W. Vanderbilt first opened his home to friends and family on Christmas Eve in 1895, Biltmore has been inspiring visitors with its extravagant, Victorian-influenced decor. The 2012 Christmas display at America’s Largest Home includes a 35-foot Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall, as well as 68 decorated trees and about 1,000 red and white poinsettias situated throughout the house. Decorating experts at Biltmore Estate suggest some basic steps for trimming a tree that will draw on the aesthetics of your home and wow all of your visitors this Christmas.

5 steps to a Biltmore-worthy tree

1. Hang the lights.

Use electrical tape to attach power strips to the tree trunk.

2. Wrap the garland.

Starting at the top of the tree, wrap in scallops; drop down a branch level at the back of the tree.

3. Hang the ornaments.

Choose a variety of shapes and sizes, placing the largest ones near the bottom of the tree.

4. Top it off.

Consider a simple tree topper such as a bow or dried flower bouquet.

5. Complete the look.

Choose an appropriate tree skirt; add some wrapped packages or poinsettias for more color.

Match Maker

When deciding on the decorations for your tree, consider the details and colors in the room, including fabrics, motifs, patterns and other inspirational details. All of these can help you choose a theme for your tree.

Holiday Stats

• George Vanderbilt opened Biltmore to friends and family on Christmas Eve in 1885, the same year that President Grover Cleveland first used strings of electric lights on the White House Christmas tree.

• Holiday decorating spending is up. A survey conducted by the National Retail Federation and BIGInsight indicates that the average consumer will spend $51.99 on holiday decorations in 2012, up from $49.15 last year. Total spending on decorations is expected to reach $6.9 billion.

• Western North Carolina ranks second in the nation for harvested Christmas trees. In 2011, Americans were expected to purchase 21.6 million real Christmas trees and 12.9 million artificial trees and to spend almost $2 billion, according to Nielsen Research reported by the American Christmas Tree Association

Do it yourself: Victorian-style tree ornaments from Biltmore

On Christmas Eve 1985, when the Vanderbilts first opened the doors of Biltmore to their guests, the house’s 250 rooms were decorated in grand Victorian fashion, including dozens of ornament-laden Christmas trees. At the turn-of-the-century, many Christmas ornaments were made by hand and displayed a simple elegance to guests and visitors. The easy-to-make decorations presented here from Biltmore’s floral staff will bring the essence of Biltmore’s Victorian Christmas to your own home.

Pearl Sphere

Cover a foam ball with corsage pins purchased from a local florist or craft store. If the ball is small, shorten pins with wire cutters. Hang with a loop of satin ribbon held in place with one of the pins.

Paper Fans

Fold small paper rectangles (made from wrapping paper scraps or used holiday cards) from side to side in 1-inch accordion pleats. Fold paper in half lengthwise first if you want the print to show on both sides. Before folding, you can decorate the edge with lace or ribbon. Decorate folded fan with tiny craft beads, ribbon bows, glitter, sequins or silk flowers, attaching them with hot glue.

Feather Wreaths

Cut doughnuts from cardboard one inch smaller than desired finished size. A finished size of three inches is good in decorating most trees. Cut feathers, purchased at a craft store, into 1 1/2 to 2-inch pieces. Glue one layer of feathers to cover the front of the doughnut. Glue a second layer of feathers overlapping the first layer. When the front is completely dry, repeat the process on other side of the doughnut. Decorate with gold beads, ribbons, or silk or dried flowers. Hang with satin ribbon loop.

Paper Cornucopias

Roll round paper doilies into a cone and staple to hold in place. A bit of tissue tucked into it helps the cone hold its shape. Fill with small pieces of candy, such as gumdrops or peppermints. Attach ends of an 8-inch strip of ribbon to either side of the cone to form a hanger.

Pomander Ball

Apples, oranges, lemons or limes will work. Pears work well because they retain a pretty shape as they dry. Push whole cloves into fruit (protect fingers with adhesive bandage strips.) Shake fruit in paper bag containing several teaspoons of ground cinnamon. Close top of bag and store in a warm spot such as the top of the refrigerator for two weeks, turning fruit daily. Cover dried fruit with rectangles of tulle (a starched net material), and close at the top with ribbons. Hang with satin ribbon loop.

Ice Cream Cones

Glue a foam ball to the top of a sugar cone. Paint foam with white craft glue. Cover foam with rectangular piece of cotton batting cut large enough to cover entire ball. Pull the edges of the batting down in one or two places to look like drips. Sprinkle top with diamond dust (purchased at local craft store). Attach ends of an 8-inch strip of ribbon to either side of ball with pins to form a hanger. Attach tiny bows with glue or pins to cover ribbon attachment. For a variation, dip glue-covered foam in lavender or potpourri instead of covering with cotton batting.

Gingerbread house tips

Find out how to make your own gingerbread house with these gingerbread recipes and gingerbread house instructions from the Grove Park Inn.

1. Decide on shape and style of house.

2. Make templates for all sides and roof of house (cardboard, posterboard).

3. Roll out gingerbread to approximately ¼ inch thick.

4. Decide on a style of window (examples: poured sugar, chocolate candies).

5. Do all decorating on side of house before assembly.

6. Make Royal Icing. Keep covered.

7. Assemble your house. You will need cans and little boxes to help support your house while the Royal Icing dries.

8. Decide on material for the roof (keep weight in mind).

9. When sides and front are dry and sturdy, assemble the roof.

10. Cover with a little powdered sugar for a snowy look (optional).

11. Add Christmas trees or people, animals, little ponds, snow banks, etc.

Gingerbread recipe

The Grove Park Inn hosts the National Gingerbread Competition each year and you could be a contender with this recipe:

1 pound margarine

12 ounces brown sugar

1 pound molasses

3 pounds 8 ounces flour

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground, dried ginger

1 teaspoon ground cloves

2 teaspoons salt

11 ounces cold water

Cream margarine, brown sugar, spices and salt until light and fluffy. Add and blend molasses. Add flour and mix to combine. Add cold water and blend. Refrigerate to set. Roll out to desired thickness and bake at 350 degrees until done, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Royal Icing

1 pound powdered sugar

2 egg whites

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Add egg whites to sugar and cream of tartar. Beat on high for 3 to 5 minutes until snow-white and fluffy. Keep covered with a damp towel to retain moisture and avoid hardening.

Royal Icing is the best choice for assembling and decorating gingerbread house. Most other icings contain shortening or butter that will eventually soak into the gingerbread and could cause your house to soften and collapse.


2 pounds almond paste

½ cup light corn syrup

2 pounds sifted powered sugar

Marzipan can be rolled and pressed into creative shapes for garnishments, people, packages, creatures, etc.


1 ounce gelatin

8 ounces water

5 pounds powdered sugar

Heat the gelatin and water until dissolved. Add confectioner’s sugar. Keep covered with a wet towel.

Pastillage, similar to stiff putty, is sometimes referred to as gum paste. Pestillage is rolled fondant without any of the softening ingredients (glycerin, cornstarch or shortening). It dries bone-dry and crusts more quickly than fondant.

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