Driving onto the grounds of the Biltmore Estate last April was an experience for the senses. As we curved up through the winding road, I opened my window to briefly brush my hand against the hanging, soft pine tree needles lining the path; pointing the way to this majestic North Carolina landmark. Glimpses of azalea bushes flashed through the trees like fireflies, holding the deepest color of magenta I had ever seen. There was a smell of the forest floor mixed into the Blue Ridge Mountain air.
We purchased our tickets and toured the Biltmore House. Truthfully, it was overwhelming, with 250 rooms, many filled with fine artwork from another century. It was easy to feel its history move through me. Sentences formed in my head on how to describe it; maybe writing them down with a vintage fountain pen would help to capture the essence of this stately home’s heritage.
Ultimately, though, the story did not even lay within the walls of the House. As we exited its opulence in search of a late lunch, the eyes of my heart saw something I didn’t even know was there. In the old stables, now converted to dining and shops, there lay the Biltmore Christmas Store. Sure, I’ve seen many stores like these, the kind that are open year-round blinking, enticing someone to enter. Christmas is available 365 days a year! But typically, I resist the call. It used to feel like a mistake to ponder the joys of Christmas in April having already packed up my holiday spirit and placed it among the snow village and ornaments almost three months earlier.
But that was before cancer. When treatment ended after eight long months in the last days of August 2020, like so many before me, I withdrew from the cancer patients’ many responsibilities: the bloodwork, surgery, physical exams, the infusion suite and the daily visits for radiation. I even had a few rounds of nuclear radiation. And I really just wanted to sleep. For a year, if that was possible. I also wanted to forget, but that simply was not. Strange things had happened to my body and my mind. It almost felt like my building blocks of DNA had been stripped down and reassembled differently. I would never be the same. By the time I was feeling physically and emotionally better, it was Thanksgiving. Christmas was right around the corner.
And that’s when something happened one day. As I was placing my snow village townspeople outside various stores and homes, as I was putting the finishing touches on our annual tree, the holiday suddenly transformed. It became a special landing place where I could throw myself and open up every ounce of my inner joy. My Christmas spirit was bursting. I saw how bright the lights on the Christmas tree actually were and I saw the time my family had put into my gifts. Christmas light displays on peoples’ homes were bigger and had more lights than ever before. All my senses and happiness were heightened.
Seeing it through a completely different prism now, I happily walked through the entrance of that Christmas store, delightfully positioned in old stables, quite reminiscent of a Christmas story from long ago. I moved thoughtfully from every table and shelf; every high nook and low cranny to see everything. And then it happened again, right in the middle of April, in the middle of North Carolina, in the middle of this store. A feeling rushed over me. This authentic happiness, this gratitude, started building in my chest. I could literally feel it surging inside. I stood, listening to the Christmas music, holding an ornament I was planning to buy and taking in the most perfect Christmas tree on display. I was surprised by this sensory, magical stirring of a sleeping holiday spirit.
I scooped up a pretty Biltmore kitchen towel, walked over to the store clerk, and made my purchases. Then, I floated outside the store. At that moment, this true happiness could have carried me away on a mountain cloud. While waiting for our friends who drove us there, I beamed. As we walked away from the House towards the car, I repeated “thank you, thank you” to them. I understood they had no idea what they had given me.
During the holiday season, I have heard that The Biltmore House is enchanting; particularly in the evening. 250 candles and 45,000 tree lights light up the rooms strewn with garlands and wreaths and many festive trees. There are blooming red poinsettias in the indoor Winter Garden and 1200 more enhance the hallways throughout. Luminaries line the driveway. Maybe I can return some time to feel that. It would probably be extraordinary.
It was always festive and fun, but Christmas is about gratitude for me now. Maybe it always should have been. My heart has somehow forever linked my joy of recovering with the joy of Christmas. And I can see now that I don’t even need the month of December to reach this special place that sparks my thankfulness. It can come to me with the mere touch of an ornament, the sound of a Christmas song or a glimpse of a Christmas tree, right in the middle of April in a tiny spot inside an old stable.