After living in North Carolina for 34 years, I finally got around to visiting the Biltmore House, famously known as America’s largest private home. At 250 rooms and almost 180,000 square feet, the French Renaissance structure has few competitors.

I confess to having resisted a visit for so long because I thought it counterintuitive to spend $59 for the privilege of looking at someone else’s extravagance.

And extravagant it is: George Vanderbilt’s primary purpose in building it appears to have been an effort to prove that obscenely rich Americans could live just as much like royalty as any British or European lord.

The amazing thing is that he was only 35 and still single when he moved into his mansion-to-end-all-mansions. The house was impressive, of course, especially bedecked for the Christmas season, but even so, I was more taken with the 8,000 acre estate and its conservatory than with the pretentiousness of the house.

While growing up, I didn’t know what a conservatory was, other than that Col. Mustard and Miss Peacock occasionally killed people there in the boardgame Clue.

Biltmore’s conservatory is a collection of connected greenhouses featuring tropical plants ranging from cacti to anthuriums to an amazing variety of orchids, along with unusual poinsettias with crinkly blooms.

The big house was filled with fancy-dancy seasonal decorations, but my favorites were a few unassuming wreaths composed of living plants. It seems to me that the Christmas spirit is not captured best by lavish self-indulgence or brightness and color, but in reminders of growth and life, however humble.


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