CHRISTMAS SHOPS Meet the Bauble-Meister
Kevin Pilley feels like a child again in a Basel store run by the couturier of Christmas trees
Johann Wanner is the Peter Pan of Christmas. He specialises in weihnachtsschmuck – Christmas decorations – and with him, it’s Noel all year.
For 46 years, the 79-year-old from Basel, Switzerland, has been selling a huge variety of bespoke decorations at his magical Johann Wanner Christmas House in the Old Town’s Spalenberg district. The internationally renowned shop is the largest manufacturer of hand-made, hand-painted Christmas decorations in the world. It specialises in chic Yuletide tree decor and fashionable seasonal accessories, and sells over 5,000 items.
“I dress trees, not women,” says Wanner, who shares his working life with elves, Santas, reindeers, snowmen, mushroom men, tiny conifers, sleighs, jingly bells, festive lights, stockings, polka-dotted toadstools, straw elephants, gift bearers, polar bears, brown bears, lions, monkeys, glass ducks and other tree ornaments.
Wanner set up the business in the 1960s, when he managed to secure Switzerland’s only licence to buy wholesale from crystal factories in Bohemia, then part of Czechoslovakia. He first sold crystal balls.
All of his baubles are now hand-crafted by highly skilled German, Polish and Czech glassblowers. He counts among his satisfied customers the White House, the Vatican, Buckingham Palace, and the royal families of Monaco and Liechtenstein. He stocks old-fashioned cotton batting ornaments and threedimensional Dresdens as well as lametta (hanging tinsel). Modern tinsel, a German invention, was originally made from shredded silver and used to represent the starry sky over the nativity scene.
To say that Wanner loves Christmas is an understatement. His car registration number is “X-MAS”. He surrounds himself with angels, wise men, icicles, hand-blown penguins, rose-gold owl heads, candy cables, bows, wreaths, holly bouquets, garlands, cribs, corn on the cobs, bananas, pickles, miniature gingerbread houses and gingerbread men, spangled raccoons and glittered-up squirrels.
There is nothing you can’t hang on your tree or put up at Christmas. Now, you can even get gin and whisky-filled baubles.
The first tree decorations included apples, pastries, cakes, gilt pea pods and butterflies, flags, birdcages, bunches of grapes and baskets of fruit. Modern mould-blown coloured glass Christmas ornaments were invented in the German town of Lauscha in the mid-19th century. Hans Greiner produced glass beads and jolly tin figurines.
In 1832, a young Queen-to-be Victoria wrote excitedly about her tree and what was under as well as on it. With her endorsement and that of her German husband, Prince Albert, Lauscha began exporting its products throughout Europe. In 1880, Woolworths began selling the coveted, status-enhancing glass ornaments so people could keep up with the Queen.
Every year, hotels and department stores compete for the title of the biggest and most expensively decorated tree. The world record is thought to be Abu Dhabi’s seven-star hotel Emirates Palace’s US$11 million gem-festooned tree, while the dearest single Christmas bauble ever made was an 18k white gold globe set with diamonds and rubies by Hallmark Jewellers, tagged at £82,000. Today’s ornament industry is estimated to be worth over US$3 billion.
“The tradition of honouring a tree is older than Christianity; it predates Christmas,” Wanner says. “Before, people honoured the green. Decorating a tree is a very important occasion. I have many decorations that I’ve had for many years. Every time I unwrap them, they tell me stories I had almost forgotten.” His favourite bauble is a cork snail he made when he was four years old.
Says Wanner: “For our family tree, I choose the worst one in the forest as a challenge. I want it to look its best. I want that tree to feel happy.”
Christmas decorations are meant to be taken down by the Twelfth Night (January 5); leaving them on the tree any longer is thought to bring bad luck. But the man whose shops (including a tea room) in Basel epitomise Christmas shopping is not superstitious. “We are open all year round. The trees never come down.”