Weinachtsbaumschmuckausstattungsgeschäft. At 40 letters long, Weinachtsbaumschmuckausstattungsgeschäft’s the longest word there is, at least on the snowy-sweet streets of Basel. And while pharmaceutical powerhouses steam away on the outskirts, here in the Old Town, alchemy takes on a more festive form.
For Weinachtsbaumschmuckausstattungsgeschäft translates to mean “Christmas Tree Ornaments & Amenities” and it’s the home of one of the most famous Christmas bauble makers in the world: Johann Wanner.
“Designers may dress women,” he tells me. “I dress trees.”
Wanner himself stands immaculately dressed in a waistcoat, jacket and tie, surrounded by baskets of baubles, flaxen-haired cherubs and dripping twinkling lights. Passers by recognise him as we walk through the streets and he’s frequently stopped and asked for advice.
Inside his shop, I look at the baubles. Giant ones hang from the ceiling like overweight balloons. Tiny ones snuggle together like beads from a 1920s necklace. The baubles are purple and green. Blue and deep red and frosted with glitter. They come as spheres, teardrops and even what looks like a scooped-out soap dish.
“That’s the traditional shape,” says Wanner, following my eye. “And they’re all handmade, each and every one. From glass in a mould or by blowing them until they reach that shape.”
I take one in my hand. It feels so light, so fragile. So perfect. It’s hard to believe someone just huffed and puffed and created this. And so nerve wracking to realise how much it would cost if I dropped it.
Wanner’s favourite is the black one.
“You are not distracted by the colour,” he says. “You just see the reflection of the lights.”
Towards the back of the shop, he introduces me to the one he thinks I’ll like the most: a bauble that represents the Union Jack.
“These have been very popular this year,” he tells me as proof that the Olympic phenomenon really does spread far and wide.
In general, says Wanner, Brits choose cherry reds and deep pine greens, while the French have a penchant for blue. He declines to discuss the tastes of his most renowned customers: the Pope, the White House and the crowd at Buck Pal.
But will he let me ask him about his own preference for baubles?
“At home, I decorate my own tree,” he says. “Even though I am married, this I must do by myself.
And does he follow the fashions? The trends he sets for the rest of the world at large?
“Not myself,” he says with a twinkle in his own eye. “Here I work with the season’s colours. At home, I unpack – with care – each year the memories I have gathered in my life.”
Now he smiles. “It is very different, my tree at home.”
It’s the answer that resonates the most with me. However beautiful and coordinated a place, tree or person can look, I always prefer the footprint of personality and the mark of a life lived well.
(Or, you know, culturally relevant festive decoration.)
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com