You’ve seen it. Around Christmas, on the corner of Stearns Street and Gondar Avenue is the most brightly lit house in Los Altos. Thousands of blinking lights, red ribbons, and a nativity scene are among the decorations adorned outside the corner home. The house is a shining beacon for motorists driving by on Stearns Street as well as neighbors walking by during Christmas time, out for an evening walk. On the two nights before Christmas eve, longtime Long Beach residents Jim and Joan Miller come out as Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, passing out candy canes to the neighborhood children. Ah yes, there’s also that big, white banner that hangs on their garage, and this year it proclaims, “22 Years Cancer Free, Praise the Lord!”
When Joan Miller was diagnosed with an advanced stage of ovarian cancer 22 years ago and given a five percent chance of survival, it was then after two surgeries and six rounds of chemotherapy later, that in December of that year, doctors declared her cancer free. 17 years ago, after being cancer free for that magic number of five years, the Millers started hanging the famous banner that has become an East Long Beach treasure.
“At five years, we felt like the Lord gave us the idea to put a sign up on the garage door for the whole neighborhood to see; to give them hope,” Joan says.
Joan says the “sign man,” who made the original banner for the Millers, changes the number for free every year. But the number 22 has special significance this year, as Joan says there has been a bump in the road -- after all these years of being cancer free, she’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, given six months to a year to live, and will need to have a life threatening surgery.
“Next year we will put out 23 years and our Christmas letter will rejoice at God’s healing,” Joan says.
Faith and Hope, according to Joan, are not mutually exclusive. Devout Christians, the Millers say Faith and Hope in their mighty God of the Bible go hand-in-hand, not only to heal, but to work out all things for the good, and for His glory -- which is why the Millers seem to exude a peace that passes all understanding.
“I patted my doctor’s arm the other day and I said, ‘You know, you think you’re in charge, but God’s really the one who’s in charge,’” Joan says with a gleeful chuckle. “We give Him all the glory for all the miracles He provides.”
Ever since the Millers displayed the cancer free banner, Joan says her own miracle has given birth to other miracles in the community.
“One year, we received the neatest anonymous letter, I cry everytime I read it,” Joan said.
The letter was from a woman who Joan said had lost everything and was about ready to give up hope. The woman writing the letter said that her husband had left her and that she faced major depression and darkness. That year, the Millers had been late putting up the cancer free sign.
“She felt like I had lost my battle too,” Joan says.
The woman decided to drive by one more time to see if the sign was up, and indeed it was.
“Since then, her life has changed,” Joan says with tears in her eyes. “She got her degree, and now she teaches school. That was a really special thing God did.”
On more than one occasion, people either battling cancer themselves or going through cancer with a loved one, have stopped by Jim and Joan’s brightly-lit house to tell them their story.
“Jim will call into the house, ‘Joan, you’ve got to come out, we have somebody that needs to be prayed for.’ And we pray for a lot of people on the sidewalk and we just want people to know what God does.”
As the neighborhood Santa Claus, with wife Joan as Mrs. Claus, Jim Miller has held newborns in his arms and has handed out candy canes to the neighborhood children for about the same amount of time the cancer free banner first went up. While waving to motorists passing by on Stearns Street, he strikes cheer into the whole community. This article’s writer remembers when he was a kid shaking hands with Santa Claus Jim Miller while walking by his house one night many years ago, and receiving a candy cane.
It’s hard to find greater fans of the Christmas season than the Millers. In 2017, Jim Miller is surrounded by his family, including his grandkids, every bit grateful for all that he has, and how far, he says, God has brought him. Jim didn’t have much growing up in Michigan. In fact, on November 10, 1955, Jim says it was a big deal for his family when they moved into a house with an indoor bathroom. He was 15. To his family, Jim recalls that having an indoor restroom was the definition of “moving uptown” and stepping up in class. On Christmas day, they wouldn’t gather around a well-decorated Christmas tree, but a simple table with a few items placed on it.
“We were a poor family; and on Christmas, we maybe got one present -- an orange, or an apple maybe,” Jim said with a tear glistening in his eye, no doubt thinking about just how far he’s come.
When Jim was 19 years old, he joined the Navy and came out to California.
“I got my home, and that’s how all this was started,” Jim says, donning the red Santa suit Friday night outside his house. “God has been so good.”
Long Beach resident Kelly Zuluaga brought her kids to take a picture with Santa Claus Jim Miller Friday night.
“They light up the neighborhood with their love and their joy; they ignite the community and give you a lot of faith and hope,” Kelly said. Jim will be outside his house wearing the big red suit again December 23 from 6pm to 8pm to take photos with children, wave to passer byers, hand out candy canes and spread Christmas cheer.
While people marvel at the outside of the Millers home, inside the house is just as spectacular. They have not one, but two Christmas trees. There are Christmas trinkets, mini nativity scenes and much more, including Jim’s beloved collection of Charles Dickens Village figurines smartly mounted on the wall.
“For our 25th wedding anniversary, dear friends gave us a piece of the collection,” Joan said about the Dickens’ figures. “Since then, it has has turned into this,” she says as she points to the massive collection.
All together, Jim and Joan have been married for 56 years. “Jim has been such a dear husband and companion,” Joan says. “He’s making life as easy as possible for me.”
Joan tells the story of when she first met Jim. She was going to Long Beach City College in the winters and working at the shipyard in the summers. Jim was an outside store keeper at the shipyard.
“He said one day that he wanted to meet me so he put on fresh whites, got a haircut, and four months and ten days after our first date, he was headed out to sea; we said we’d might as well get married before he left.”
The Millers have been quite content with each other ever since, still living in Long Beach all these years later. They attend church at the Church of the Nazarene on Clark Avenue. As the attention shifts to the Miller’s stockings over the fireplace, Joan says they started out with five socks. They have two sons and a daughter. “Now we’re up to 19 socks,” Joan proudly says. “We had our three children, they got married, and now we have eight grandchildren, and one- and-a-half greats -- Joshua James is coming April 1. The doctor said if I don’t have surgery, I will have six months to a year to live and I might not even see Joshua James.”
But Joan always goes back to the fact that she serves a mighty God, one that came to Earth as a poor, lowly, little baby 2,000 years ago to heal, and to seek and save that which was lost. We’ve all heard the story, but there’s a special reflection, a glimmer in the eye of Jim and Joan Miller -- they seem to have a special relationship with the Christ-child. They’ve experienced His poorness. At one time Jim had next to nothing. They’ve experienced grief and sorrow, like Jesus ultimately would. As Joan quotes from the Book of Isaiah, “By His stripes we are healed.” Indeed Hope and Faith live at the house of the Millers. They’ve been through many storms, but have always seemed to come out on the other side, and have been led to some beautiful places as well because of it -- mountain peaks perhaps sweeter than what any of us could imagine. It’s no wonder that their house truly does radiate some special light that goes beyond the brightness of the house’s decorations.