Holiday House

He made God a promise: 'If you help me through this, I'll build a shrine to brighten my neighborhood.'

By Adam Hunter, Wayside, New Jersey

As appeared in

Sylvester the cat dressed up as Uncle Sam? Tourists snapping photos of waist-high toy soldiers and a lit-up American flag? This Independence Day scene isn't at Six Flags or Disneyland. It's on John Zammit's front lawn in Brooklyn.

In the fall of 1982, John was losing his battle with cancer. He made God a promise: "If you help me through this, I'll build a shrine to brighten my neighborhood."

John left the hospital in time to keep his promise for Christmas. The cancer had gone into remission. He set up a Nativity scene on his lawn. "Neighbors heard about my miracle," John says, "and wanted to join in the celebration."

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He soon added their cards and flowers, plus plastic reindeer, costumed cartoon characters, and hand-painted Christmas greetings on foam lunch trays. Come New Year's, the 12-foot-high display, stacked on milk crates and held together with chicken wire and duct tape, was the pride of the neighborhood.

That was just the beginning. Valentine's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, and every holiday in between lent themselves to John's festive flair. Hundreds have come to take a look and get a lift.

Now 68 (and still cancer-free), John has dispensed with elaborate displays. But he keeps his Nativity up year-round to honor his promise. "People smile and say thank you for so many happy years," he says. "Every day, I say thank you too."