“My father was passionate about Christmas. He believed Christmas was the perfect time to celebrate all the joy that comes with living, and he did his best to spread good cheer…His zeal came from an unlikely place: the polio epidemic of 1934.” – Georja Skinner
On May 22, 1934, a robust twenty-two-year old college named George Skinner was swimming laps at the Los Angeles City College pool. Reading a book at poolside, his girlfriend Allison realized that an unusual quiet had descended. She looked up from her book and was horrified to discover that George was quickly sinking to the bottom of the pool—spread-eagle, motionless, and eyes wide open.
After arriving at the Los Angeles County General Hospital, the doctor immediately recognized George’s symptoms: poliomyelitis. In the early 30’s many were stricken with polio and, at the time, there was no known cure or prevention for the virus. The only treatment was isolation, rest, time spent in the iron lung, and morphine to relieve the pain.
As he lay in the polio ward, George received a dire prognosis. The disease had spread through 80 percent of his body and there was a strong possibility that he would never walk again. Unable to speak, George blinked his eyes in acknowledgement as the doctor relayed the shocking news. Albert, George’s talkative happy-go-lucky Dad, was stunned into silence. Because the ward was under quarantine, the hospital staff asked Albert to leave—leaving George alone.
Although George was inducted President of the Optimist Society in 1932, he still struggled with the question “Why me?” After all, he thought, I believe in God. I go to church. One minute I’m playing varsity sports, in love with my college sweetheart, and the next I’m paralyzed, on the verge of death.
Other troubling thoughts plagued George in the polio ward—ones involving the family he and his father left behind in Canada 14 years ago. He had fond memories of his Mother and his brothers, especially during Christmastime. His Mother had loved Christmas and so had George. Yet, what was supposed to be a “few weeks vacation” turned into a new life in California—without his other family members.
Why did his Dad avoid questions about the family they left behind? Where were they? Why didn’t they write or visit when he needed them the most?
Fueled by his fond memories of Christmases past, his fiery optimism, and his desire to repay the many kindnesses and overwhelming support shown by church members, friends, and neighbors, George vowed that he would one day walk again—and that he’d create a spectacular Christmas wonderland for all to enjoy.
The Christmas House, written by George’s daughter Georja Skinner, chronicles the heart-warming—and sometimes heart-wrenching—account of George’s rigorous exercise regimen and arduous recovery, which included enlisting the aid of Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR’s private nurse for hydrotherapy. Ms. Skinner lovingly relays George’s tireless planning for the Christmas House, the elaborate steps that George and Albert took to bring the vision to life and the outpouring of support from merchants, friends, and the community. In addition, The Christmas House is a poignant story of enormous dedication, creativity, resilience, forgiveness, love, and community spirit. Also tucked within the pages of this touching book is a sweet love story about Georja’s parents.
An indoor holiday forest, hand-painted scenery, snow shipped in from Utah, floodlights, a magical wishing well, home-made baked goods, and an elaborate sound system—all designed by George—were but a few of the wondrous experiences enjoyed by visitors to the Christmas House.
It’s fascinating to read how the Skinners transformed a bungalow into the magical Christmas House—and how its presence touched thousands of lives. Volunteers worked tirelessly to bring George’s displays into reality. For example, one of George’s ideas was to bury tree trunks upside down in holes dug in the backyard. He figured that the twisted roots would resemble leafless branches in the dead of winter. After he was satisfied with his makeshift forest, he painted the exposed roots with white paint and sprinkled metal shavings on the wet paint. You see, in the days of the Great Depression, they didn’t have extra money for modern decorative conveniences like glitter.
The Christmas House by Georja Skinner is a stirring tribute to her father and his legacy. I cried, I rejoiced, and I marveled as I read about this remarkable man and his father and the community they rallied together at a time when despair and poverty covered America.
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