ASHEVILLE - It may have been just 10 hours since the end of Halloween, but Santa was in his place at the front of the horse-drawn carriage bringing a 37-foot Fraser fir to the entrance of Biltmore House.
As the "jolly old elf" waved to the hundreds of people gathered along the route, he made it official: Christmas has arrived.
The annual tree-raising Wednesday morning — beneath the 70-foot ceiling of the great home's banquet hall — serves not only as Biltmore's kickoff for the sacred season, but as Western North Carolina's as well. Holiday markets and amusements begin dotting the mountains this weekend, and the downtown Asheville Christmas parade is just over two weeks away.
But if the estate's rooftop trumpeter sounded more somber this year, it may have been because it was the first Christmas season begun without the younger grandson of Biltmore founder George Vanderbilt. William A.V. Cecil died Tuesday at his home in Asheville, 89 years after he was born in the Louis XV Suite inside Biltmore House. (He is survived by his brother, George H.V. Cecil, 92.)
William Cecil's son, William "Bill" Cecil Jr., was on hand for the banquet hall ceremony Wednesday, receiving condolences and graciously mingling with some of the visitors who had spent hours waiting for the tree raising.
According to Rick Conard, Biltmore's vice president of operations and the de facto drill sergeant running the tree-moving team, people were lined up and waiting to get onto the grounds as early as 7:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. festivities.
Among the early arrivals was Trina McBride, with her husband and three children — ages 5, 7 and 15 — all of whom got up at 5 a.m. in their Salisbury home to make it to Biltmore in time for the tree's arrival.
"I love Biltmore," said McBride, an annual passholder. "It's my favorite place."
After about eight previous visits so far this year, she said, the family will be back again in early December to celebrate their daughter's 16th birthday.
Midge and Tom Lorenc, of Hendersonville, shared similar plans while awaiting the tree's appearance: a quick visit Wednesday, then a return journey for Biltmore's Candlelight Christmas Evenings, which begin Friday and continue nightly through Jan. 6.
"We're going to stay at the Inn (on Biltmore Estate) for our anniversary in December," Midge Lorenc said. "We'll be married 48 years."
"Unless she kicks me out," Tom Lorenc joked.
Tom and Midge Lorenc watched intently as the tree arrived at the home's entrance, and spontaneous applause greeted the tree-movers' each accomplishment: Lifting the tree from the carriage using more than a dozen long metal poles, getting it up the steps and into the entrance hall, making that difficult final turn into the banquet hall itself and, trickiest of all, raising the nearly 2 tons of wood and needles to a vertical position with a network of ropes — without damaging the chandelier, furniture or antique tapestries.
In addition to celebrating one more successful tree-raising, Conard, the V.P. of operations, was marking his 30th anniversary at Biltmore and his 31st Christmas season there.
"It does not get any easier," he said of the effort to jostle a giant fir tree into place. "But it's always as fun."