The Ultimate Christmas Tree

Aleta Fimbres 23/12/2010

Johann Wanner's Christmas

What are the best-dressed Christmas trees wearing this year? For some ideas, GrooveTraveler visited Johann Wanner, Basel’s world-famous weihnachtsmann in his shop in the old town…

{loadposition content_adsensecontent}

In the center of Basel, Switzerland, just up behind the fine old marketplace is a cluster of picturesque streets. Closed to traffic, the streets are lined with quaint, higgledy-piggledy houses, their names often written in flowing Gothic script. At NUMBER 14 SPALENBERG – built in 1322 stands Wanner’s shop.

Step inside the door (manned for the Christmas season by a uniformed gentleman wearing white gloves) and you take a step back in time. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of glass balls and bells, hearts and globes, suns and moons, angels and birds, Santas and mice, candles and bows. Yet this air of tradition and Old World charm is almost misleading, for Wanner is at the cutting edge where Christmas Tree Decorations are concerned.

Feeling in a patriotic mood this season? Wanner can provide you with glass balls, bells, Mississippi paddle steamers and stars all done out in the regulation red, white and blue with a choice of Stars and Stripes or Union Jack motifs. Maybe you prefer the more traditional red and green color scheme? There are red-and-white Santas, scarlet bows, spotted mushrooms, strands of intertwined glass beads (tinsel is out) and red apples, a throwback to ancient times when trees were decorated with apples, cookies, wafers and candles. Or perhaps the mood this year will be BAROQUE, with angels, birds, bows and musical instruments.

Wanner also does trees to order, designed to harmonize with their surroundings. One year, the lobby of the Hotel Victoria-Jungfrau in Interlaken was resplendent with a Wanner tree in green and gold, decked out with hunting horns, flying angels and smiling moons. For a watch and jewelry store, there are timepiece trees; for the musical family a musical instrument tree complete with fuchsia pink violins, harps, bows and candles. There have even been spaghetti trees for Italian restaurants, and sausage trees for the butcher.

His French customers, it seems, go for gorgeously glitzy, golden tree ornaments, while the Swiss and Germans favor the elegance of silver and green. The itinerant Wanner spreads the word about the decorated Christmas tree all over the world, and new markets are emerging all the time – Turkey, Greece, Japan and India are just some of his more surprising recent destinations.

Most people (including Wanner himself) build up their collection of much-loved ornaments year by year, perhaps from generation to generation. With such people in mind, the firm introduces new lines and new colors every year. This December, the frosty look is in: from hearts, bells and globes to tomatoes, carrots, lemon slices and corn cobs, all have a misty, icy, powder-snow look, as if they had just emerged from a swirling winter mist. Colors are stunning lime green, wedgwood blue, palest lilac and Episcopal purple, salmon pink, even black.

"One should really enjoy Christmas," beams Wanner. "You just have to play the game to the hilt!"

Ivan Grill's Angel collection

Heavenly Pursuits
Ivan Grill is an adoptive Basler, born in Croatia of Italian parents. An artist by trade, he specializes in naïf paintings of scenes from his childhood, circus figures, and increasingly – of landmarks from the city of Basel. The paintings, themselves collectors’ items, have financed Grill’s own lifetime collection: around SIX THOUSAND ANGELS, which are housed in his highly original apartment in Klein-Basel.

Grill’s entire apartment is painted red, providing a backdrop for the multitude of heavenly hosts on display there. Angels fly from on high, they frolic on the walls. Every available surface is graced with heavenly bodies. There is even a child-sized cherub sitting cross-legged in an armchair in front of the television.

Grill began by collecting antiques of every sort, but now the angels have definitely got the upper hand. There is no room for anything else – except for his paintings, some of which are exhibited between the putti and the beaming cherubs, for this is his gallery, from which his paintings are sold.

Pride of place, over the doorway of the piano room, goes to the very first angel he ever purchased. He spotted it thirty years ago in a market in the city, fell in love with it and asked the price. Six thousand Swiss francs came the answer. At the time, chuckles Grill, he was lucky to be earning six hundred a month! Cheekily he offered one of his paintings in exchange. Done!

It’s an astonishing collection by any standards. There’s a table of porcelain angels by lladro, and a cabinet of antique meissen. some are in carved wood, clearly once part of some baroque choir loft or church decoration. There are Wedgwood angels, silver angels, angels from Russia, Romania, America, Italy and Spain. Most curious of all is the little Japanese angel, clad in a kimono and sporting an impressive pair of wings.

Grill still frequents flea markets and antique shows the world over, and is a regular at Basel’s Saturday morning Petersplatz Market. He cuts an arresting figure, dressed in his customary red and black, with a bushy beard and long flowing hair tied back at the nape of his neck. Surely, I surmised, one glimpse of him and the stallholders promptly double the price of any angels in sight. "Of course everyone knows me!" he agrees. So having checked out the angel situation, he often sends an anonymous purchaser to do the actual deal on his behalf.

Most evenings he is to be found holding court in the restaurant of the HOTEL EULER (Centralbahnplatz 14 – 4002 Basel – Phone + 41(0)61 275 80 00 – Fax + 41(0)61 275 80 50 –, in Basel, where he has a special table permanently reserved for him. "All my friends know I am here, they look in to see me!" Each year at the end of November, he throws open the doors of his apartment for a vernissage of his latest paintings, where they can be viewed amongst the angels. The champagne flows, heavenly choirs play, and anyone who is anybody in Basel goes along.

And what will happen to the collection when he is no longer there to nurture it? He has left instructions in his will that the angels be housed in a museum. Basel’s already impressive tally of museums looks set to be further enriched in the future.

About the Author