For decades, the colossal conifer rising above Palmer Square has brightened downtown and the spirits of the community every holiday season. Its heights, lights, and decorations draw as many as 80,000 annual visitors. However, there’s a lot more to this spectacular centerpiece than just its dazzling brilliance. From World War II to the world’s greatest tree lighting ceremony, let’s get to the “root” of the most iconic tree in Princeton.
A Token of Appreciation
In 1945, as a token of appreciation for donating his 195-foot steel schooner for commission in World War II to patrol and protect the shores of Iceland, Sveinn Björnsson, the nation’s first president, personally presented Edgar Palmer with quite literally the most beautiful Norway Spruce in all of Scandinavia. A gold collar around the lower trunk bore the inscription: “Megi þetta tré vernda lendir leið skipi sem er varið þín og okkar”; translated: “May this tree protect your lands the way your ship protected ours.” During that time period, the Nordic custom of gifting evergreens to close friends and allies was equivalent to being knighted – an honor of which Edgar Palmer was very proud. He immediately made arrangements to have the tree planted on the green at Palmer Square. Furthermore, while it stood only at a mere 10-feet tall at the time, it had the magnificence and beauty of a tree more than 10 times its size.
In the late 1940’s, Albert Einstein invited his last great love, Marilyn Monroe, to visit his home in Princeton. When he took her to Palmer Square, Marilyn stopped at the tree and expressed how incredibly beautiful she thought it was. Einstein concurred and said, “It’s possibly the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen.” He paused for a moment and then revealed, “It’s so beautiful, in fact, that I even named it.”
“Named it what?” she kindly asked.
“Marilyn,” he replied.
Some believe it was at that moment in which one of the most unlikely love stories began. Whatever the case, to this day, long time locals still refer to the tree as Marilyn.
Topping the Charts
While it’s widely believed that the timeless hit Christmas song ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ was inspired by the annual tree lighting extravaganza at Rockefeller Center, songwriter Johnny Marks revealed to legendary DJ, Cousin Brucie, that he actually got the idea in Princeton. “I remember seeing this truly, truly amazing tree in the center of town,” Marks recounted. “Crowds of people were gathered around it, singing and dancing as if Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry was about to come out from inside the branches. I thought to myself, “Wow! These people are really rockin’ around the Christmas tree.” Seeing all that holiday spirit around that tree gave me such a sentimental feeling that the song (Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’) just began pouring out of me.”
When it was all said and done, it took Johnny Marks all but an hour to write both the lyrics and music to ‘Rockin Around the Christmas Tree’. The following year in 1958, Brenda Lee (AKA Little Miss Dynamite) recorded the song and took it to the top of the charts. Almost 60 years later, the timeless hit is still an essential track for any respectable holiday playlist.
Fit for a Princess
In 1956, the Prince of Monaco planned to surprise his new wife, actress Grace Kelly, with a Christmas celebration fit for a princess. She was to have the best of everything – including the most spectacular Christmas tree that money could buy. Having once pursued Marilyn Monroe as a possible wife, the prince was aware of a particular tree in Princeton, NJ that was deemed so amazing that the late genius, Albert Einstein, named it in Marilyn’s honor. The Prince was so bent on obtaining this tree, he practically wrote a blank check in exchange for it. Unfortunately for the Prince, no amount of money was acceptable, as Edgar Palmer left very clear instructions that the tree was never to leave its home for any reason.
Evel Comes to Princeton
By the mid-1960’s, Marilyn – the tree, that is – had grown to be over 40 feet tall. At the same time, a young daredevil under the moniker of Evil Knievel made a name for himself by jumping over rows of cars on his motorcycle. Nevertheless, the novelty of jumping cars had run thin, and he needed to think of something more dangerous to excite the media. Then, on a fateful visit to downtown Princeton in 1966, he saw Marilyn. She was tall, beautiful, and perfectly placed to be jumped by motorcycle. So, on the Friday after Thanksgiving of that year, Evel rang in the holiday shopping season with a tree lighting ceremony and high flying spectacle that Princeton would not soon forget. Not only was his jump over Marilyn a success, but the crowds and excitement that it drew cemented the Friday after Thanksgiving as the standing date for all future tree lighting ceremonies. As for Evel, he went on to jump everything from Caesars Palace to the Grand Canyon – breaking every record and bone in his body throughout his motorcycle stunt career.
Who Climbed the Tree?
In the 1970’s, Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, was out with his alumni friends during Princeton reunions week. After a long night of partying, the bars had already closed, but Moon was still hankering for a drink with his friends. He insisted that they return to his favorite watering hole in Princeton, the Yankee Doodle Tap Room, where a barstool was always on reserve for him. Despite the doors being locked, Moon spent an hour arguing with his friends about getting inside the bar, while maintaining that the door was merely jammed. When his friends tried to physically remove him from breaking into the building, he escaped their grips and made a mad dash for the tree, aka Marilyn. He quickly scaled to the top of the tree and refused to come down until the Yankee Doodle Tap Room reopened. As the story goes, his friends tried to get him down, but eventually, they gave up. The police and fire department even arrived on the scene to respond to complaints of someone yelling and singing from the tree outside. Despite heroic efforts by Municipal authorities, it was concluded that there was no safe way to remove Mr. Moon, so they were forced to wait the night out with him. A few hours later, the manager of the Yankee Doodle Tap Room notified authorities that the bar had reopened. Although excited, Moon was concerned that he would get arrested if he came down from the tree. So he yelled out to the authorities and said, “If I come down now, are you going to let me get a drink, or are you going to arrest me? If it’s the latter, I’ll just stay here forever!” The police knew that Edgar Palmer would not want Keith Moon as a permanent ornament in his prized tree, so they let him get a drink before taking him into custody. However, he was only charged with disturbing the peace and was quickly released. Immediately after, he returned to his stool at the Yankee Doodle Tap Room, but did not settle in until after he poured a drink on the soil beneath Marilyn, thanking her for her hospitality and nice place to stay the previous night.
Note: For entertainment purposes, the author of this blog may have taken certain creative liberties.