A Tree Glows in Princeton

Behind the Scenes of the Annual Palmer Square Tradition

By Anne Levin | Photos courtesy of Palmer Square Management

In a stretch of long tunnels that run underneath Palmer Square, an annual rite of the holiday season gets underway just after Halloween. In these catacombs (minus the tombs), the 3.5 miles of lights that adorn the massive Palmer Square Christmas tree are hung along the walls so that their multi-colored bulbs can be tested and replaced. It is an exacting process that takes about three weeks to complete.

By the day after Thanksgiving, the tree is ready. That evening — Black Friday — crowds of local residents and tourists gather on the green and around the Square, awaiting the moment when the switch is flipped and the 70-foot Norway Spruce bursts into light. It is an annual, much-anticipated tradition — in normal years. But 2020, of course, is not a normal year.

Hordes of people standing shoulder to shoulder are the last thing that Palmer Square Management, and the municipality of Princeton, want to encourage this season. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tree lighting is virtual this year, with no ceremony for people to attend.

But the management company was not about to let fans down. After much deliberation, the staff settled on a solution that they hope captures the holiday spirit while keeping people safe. Instead of an in-person event, the tree was lit ahead of time. The usual participants — dancers from American Repertory Ballet, singers from Princeton High School, musicians from School of Rock, and Santa Claus — took part in a video production that will be available to watch online throughout the season.

“We knew we couldn’t do it in person this year,” said Lori Rabon, vice president of Palmer Square Management and general manager of the Nassau Inn. “We get thousands of people. In all good conscience, with what is going on, I just can’t do that. But Jamie [Volkert, of Palmer Square Management’s director of marketing] came up with a brilliant idea.”

Volkert’s first goal was to keep things as traditional as possible while avoiding a specific, dated event. “I was worried that if we did a live stream, people would get wind of it and show up. So, we scratched that idea,” she said earlier this fall. “We decided to film the tree lighting ahead of time and add some behind-the-scenes footage of the guys decorating the tree. We’ll tell some stories, too. Because there are stories to tell.”

While it’s hard to pin down the exact date when the tree lighting began, there are scattered mentions of it in Princeton University’s “Papers of Princeton” database.

“There was an illuminated Christmas tree in Palmer Square from at least 1940 — that caption from the [Princeton] Packet exhibition suggests 1939 as the first year a ‘Community Christmas Party’ was held in Palmer Square, but does not specify whether a tree was included that first year,” wrote Stephanie Schwartz, the Historical Society of Princeton curator of collections, in an email.

The earliest references Schwartz found to a tree lighting are 1961 and 1976. The former, dated December 22, 1961, shows Mayor Raymond F. Male flipping the switch as Fred M. Blaicher, then president of Palmer Square Inc., looked on. A December 2, 1976 calendar entry in Town Topics newspaper lists a tree lighting at Palmer Square with singing by the Boychoir of Princeton, sponsored by Palmer Square shops and the Nassau Inn.

There are unconfirmed legends. A blog that pops up repeatedly online, in which the unnamed author admits to taking a certain amount of “creative liberties,” has this to say:

“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 Bjornsson, the nation’s first president, personally presented Edgar Palmer [who built the Square] with quite literally the most beautiful Norway Spruce in all of Scandinavia. A gold collar around the lower trunk bore the inscription 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 of a tree more than 10 times its size.”

According to Jim Elkington, Palmer Square Management’s director of facilities, it takes 33,872 bulbs to light the towering tree. Elkington was a young teenager when he began helping his father, who worked in the hotel’s maintenance department, prepare the lights and decorate the tree.

“That was the 1970s. There weren’t as many light bulbs back then,” he said. “They would change the colors. Sometimes they were blue and green, sometimes white and blue. Then, in the 1980s, we went to multi-colored. These strings are long — really long. If you put them end to end, they would stretch from Nassau Street to the Princeton Airport.”

The long hallways underneath Palmer Square West are the only place with enough room to work on the bulbs. “We replace the lights every year, because of the weathering,” Elkington said. “It usually takes about eight to 10 people to do the job.”

The painstaking process doesn’t always go as planned. Elkington remembers one year in the late 1990s when he had to do some challenging, last-minute repairs. “The most important thing is that the tree lights. You get one chance,” he said. “During the day of the lighting, we test it often to make sure it will light. About one hour before the event, we turned it on, and the star wasn’t working. A squirrel had bitten through it or something. I had to climb it with the lights in my pocket, and I got it done just in time.”

The annual tree lighting officially inaugurates the holiday shopping season for Palmer Square. “It has become such a tradition, for so many families,” said Rabon. “I talk to people, who tell me they came when they were children, and now they bring their own. They come back in multi-generational families. Parents come from Florida for the holidays, and everything on that Friday is about going to the tree lighting and visiting with Santa. I think it is extremely important. It breaks my heart that we won’t be able to do it in person this year, because it does mean so much. But the show we’re producing will hopefully make up for it until we’re able to come back live next year.”