Christmas at The Greenbrier a relatively new tradition
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Spending the holidays at The Greenbrier resort is practically a Christmas miracle.
When families arrive, the lobby smells of rich chocolate, trees are trimmed and themed to each room, the stockings are hung and presents are wrapped and ready for Christmas morning. With sleigh rides, ice skating and a Gingerbread Ball listed among the activities, the resort strives to become a winter wonderland for its guests — many of whom have made the special day at the resort a tradition.
“I think grandmother has moved to the retirement home and she doesn’t have her home anymore, and so they decide to go to The Greenbrier,” said Betsy Conte, director of social activities.
She welcomes many of The Greenbrier’s guests back year after year with hundreds — if not thousands — of yards of ribbon and dozens of decorated trees.
When Conte started working at The Greenbrier nearly 30 years ago, however, she didn’t know that decorating the more than 700-room resort for Christmas was her responsibility.
“A housekeeper, who was very stern, she came up to me and said ‘Where are the Christmas decorations?’ and I looked at her and I said, ‘I don’t know. Why you would ask me? Why would I know?’ She said, ‘You decorate.’”
That year, Conte found a large tree for the lobby and made simple, traditional decor work.
Since then — while extending decor across the hotel to more than 60 trees and several new Christmas activities — Conte has kept the holiday decor “traditional” for a reason.
“That’s really The Greenbrier,” she said.
In the hotel’s main lobby, where many families stop to take their annual holiday photos, the largest indoor tree is decorated with red, green and gold ribbons and ornaments. It’s a traditional tree with complements to the room’s floral upholstery and drapes of green, pink and blue.
All of the indoor trees are silk, per the recommendation of the Fire Marshal, and take several weeks to assemble, light and decorate.
Conte begins working with the resort’s engineers and electricians in late-August to start decorating.
She designs each tree to complement the well-known Dorothy Draper decor, with whimsical wall colors and floral drapes in mind.
“We’re dressed with five colors generally — red, white, green, blue and yellow,” she said. “Those are the five colors that really decorate The Greenbrier.”
Once lit, Conte wraps each tree in custom-made ribbon, then stuffs the remaining branches with ornaments and decorative picks.
In the raspberry-painted Cameo Ballroom, four trees are dressed in gold and pink ribbon, strands of pearls and silver ornaments.
A hallway leading to the spa, where guests bathe in sulfur water from underground springs, is embellished with purple, green and gold ribbon to match the rhododendron wallpaper.
A tree in the indoor pool room is decorated to match the tropical floral drapes with pink and green ribbon, flowers and a colorful toucan tree-topper.
In the north parlor, Conte keeps in mind the blue, turquoise and pink decor when she decorates two trees with faux peacock feathers and ribbon designed with roses.
“I think these two are really my favorite,” she said.
By Thanksgiving, the resort is almost entirely decorated for the Christmas holiday.
By the last week of December, Conte will add fresh poinsettias — about 3,000 — as well as assemble about 25 trees to be placed in guest rooms and cottages at request.
More trees will be added for weddings, events and the resort’s annual Christmas Eve Gingerbread Ball.
It’s an undertaking, she said, to embellish an already fully decorated resort.
“I think you could take the Christmas decorations down and we would still be beautiful,” Conte said. “It’s such a beautiful hotel.”
Decorating the resort this extensively for the holidays hasn’t always been tradition, she noted.
Spending Christmas vacation at The Greenbrier is relatively recent and started within the last 40 years.
“People had Christmas at home, and the whole idea of going away for Christmas was sort of scandalous,” said Dr. Robert Conte, historian at the resort. “You had to be home for Christmas — it was, like, written somewhere.”
Betsy and Robert, married, met while working at The Greenbrier. As a result, the resort has become their home for all holidays.
Robert was hired 40 years ago to organize archives, which had accumulated in an attic. Since then, he’s written a book and picked up a few other jobs around the hotel, like giving tours.
Back then, he said, winter was the “off season” at The Greenbrier.
“The resort has been here for a long time, but for the first 100 years, in the 1800s, it was only open in the summer,” he said.
In that time, tents and cottages on the property couldn’t handle the winter weather, and the original hotel wasn’t heated.
It wasn’t until 1913, when The Greenbrier’s central wing was built, that a winter celebration at the resort became possible.
“So, I’m sure we celebrated Christmas 1913 here, but really, we didn’t do much business during that time of year,” Robert said.
In December 1915, President Woodrow Wilson and his new bride, Edith Bolling Galt, stopped by The Greenbrier on their honeymoon.
Robert Conte has found photographs and menus from Christmas in the early 1900s, including some from a 1928 dinner.
Guests that year could choose from “Sea Bass with Potatoes Noisette,” “Fresh Lobster in Chafing Dish, Newburg,” “Roast Stuffed Greenbrier Farm Capon, Giblet Sauce” and “Sweetbread en Cassolette, Clamart.” Prices ranged from 30 cents for sides and appetizers to $4 for “Grilled Spring Turkey on Toast.”
During World War II, The Greenbrier closed to the public and the United States kept German, Italian and Hungarian diplomats and families at the resort in 1941 while awaiting to exchange them for American diplomats stranded overseas.
“Years ago, I met a woman who was German and who was here as a child,” Robert said. “She was 5 at the time, and she said there was a big Christmas tree in [the Cameo Ballroom], and it was decorated with apples. She was so impressed we still had the Christmas rituals here even though there was no one here and we weren’t open to the public and it was under very special circumstances.”
In 1942, The Greenbrier became Ashford General Hospital and was used to treat injured soldiers. Roast turkey was on the menu each year, with the addition of eggnog ice cream in 1943, fruitcake in 1944 and hot mince pie in 1945.
The Greenbrier reopened to the public in 1948, but Christmas was a slow time.
As families became more spread out and the interstate came along, the holidays started to pick up.
“In the 1970s, we start realizing that maybe people can overcome that idea that you have to have Christmas at home — and if everyone is traveling anyway, why don’t we all travel to a resort, and then Grandma wouldn’t have to cook and clean the dishes,” Robert said.
The resort’s marketing team started a strategic plan to attract guests during the coolest time of year.
“If you look at the numbers from 1970 and 1975, the numbers go from like 200 to about 800, and it was a matter of good old marketing and persuading people that The Greenbrier is an alternative, and then you could spend more time with the family,” he said. By the late 1970s, the resort was selling out or close to it, he added.
In addition to Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years became more popular.
Secretly, he said, the nicest event of the year at The Greenbrier is Christmas Eve.
“On Christmas Eve, right in the main lobby where all of the presents are stacked up, we’ll have Christmas carols, and it’s just so sentimental,” he said. “All of the guests gather around the table and for about an hour or so we have the wassail toast and burning of the yule log.”