Story as written in the Chicago Tribune PrimeTime
Growing up in Rockton, Gene Wensel usually spent Christmas Eve with his father’s relatives and Christmas Day with his mother’s. “We were a Methodist family and would go to church on Christmas,” he says.
Food was important in their celebrations. “We used to have turkey; a lot of turkey. My sister liked the light meat, and I liked the dark meat, so we were never in competition for the turkey,” he says.
A traditional dish for Christmas was his mother’s oyster stew. “My sister and I weren’t in competition with that either. She just liked the stew, but I liked oysters.” His aunt baked much-anticipated Norwegian cakes, cookies and bread. “Unfortunately, none of her recipes were saved and passed down,” he says.
He recalls his mother’s creativity warmly. “She spent a lot of time decorating our home. She was a decorator at heart and was quite good,” he says.
Perhaps as a nod to his mother’s passion, Wensel, who lives in Oak Trace Senior Living in Downers Grove, became an avid collector and Christmas decorator of the popular porcelain fairytale-like structures known as the Christmas Village. Starting about 60 years ago, early in his own marriage to his wife, Lois, he’s set up beautiful decorations throughout his home.
More recently, he’s thought of letting this tradition go. “I say every year, ‘this is the last time’ but I’m still at the point that I start getting it ready just before Thanksgiving.”
Wensel takes pleasure in sharing the décor with his family. While he’s given his daughter much of his collection, he still has a sizeable amount. “I fill up our cabinet and windowsills and all the tables,” he says. “It has always started the holiday season for me.”