Johann Wanner is the Peter Pan of the business world. When he was a child he hated the day the Christmas decorations were packed away for another year and the season ended. He was schooled by Jesuits but longed for glamour, and for Christmas to last forever. As an adult, he started keeping Christmas trees in his apartment all year long. Now he's 80, and still likes nothing better than being alone with his trees, which shimmer and tinkle with decorations.
Other people might have become recluses, but Wanner is one of six children and likes a good natter. The genial eccentric is often found in his Christmas shop in Basel's old town, where his black butler-like attire strikes a sombre note against a backdrop of glitter and gold. He likes to talk to customers, and is an unabashed self-promoter. He'll tell you he's the world's most famous Christmas-tree decorator, that he plays golf with princes and wowed Oprah Winfrey. But you won't mind his boasting, because it's all true.
Wanner started as an antiques dealer, and in 1969 came across antique Christmas-tree ornaments behind the Iron Curtain. "I was Swiss and that was OK in Eastern Europe, so I got a licence to buy, just like James Bond had a licence to kill!" He bought 50,000 ornaments in his first year and sold them in a shop on Spalenberg Street. Today the Basel shop is a year-round kaleidoscope of Christmas, crammed with giant bowls of tree balls and ornaments, its ceiling hung with cherubs, every corner an effervescence of lavishly-laden Christmas trees.
Over the decades Wanner became an internationally renowned master of festive frippery. He's the go-to Christmas decorator for theme parks, luxury hotels and royal palaces. He's consulted by movie directors who want the right period look for their Christmas sets. For a top – and expensive – expert, Wanner is surprisingly free with advice and surprisingly open-minded, should you come across him in his main store or the one nearby that has an attached cafe.
You can do what you want with your Christmas tree, he says, as long as it represents your personality. Just take your time. How long does it take to decorate the perfect tree? I ask him – "Eternity". He says when you think you are finished, leave it for a half-hour, then study the tree from a distance. "It's like life, you have to go away to understand where you came from."
Most people, he observes, just want to replicate the tree they remember from their childhood. Still, you should introduce something new each year that reflects your feelings.
"I open old decoration boxes from previous years and it tells me something about my life at that time. I remember things, and the hours pass."
Decoration isn't about quantity but quality. Simple, well-made ornaments bring you pleasure, says Wanner. If you can afford them, that is. His current special range, inspired by Faberge eggs, is bejewelled with Swarovski crystals.
Wanner's separate Christmas cafe has a smaller, more refined collection of baubles made from silver-lined, hand-blown glass, glowing with unusual colours such as deep lilac and sea green and retail for $50 each. Antique ornaments can cost $2000 each.
As I wade through his shop's avalanche of goodies, I find not everything is elegant. There are ornaments in the shape of cigars, unicorns, prawns and hamburgers. Business is business, after all. If you're a lover of cupcakes or star-spangled banners, then Wanner has something for you. And like a couturier, the maestro creates a fresh look each season, and some 200 ornaments to match.
He won't say what next season's trend will be, though. Too many spies and copycats want a jump on the coming fashion. Wanner might be Peter Pan, but he's all business.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe and Cathay Pacific.
Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Zurich via Hong Kong. See cathaypacific.com.au
The Passage is sleek, designer-simple, conveniently located and has outstandingly helpful staff. See thepassage.ch
Johann Wanner's Weihnachtshaus (Spalenberg 14) is open year-round. Weihnachtscafe (Schneidergasse 7) opens October to early January. See johannwanner.ch