LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Some people say it's the work of a "Secret Santa," an exuberant Kris Kringle determined to create an annual Christmas tradition on a lonely stretch of the Garden State Parkway.
Others say the mystery of just who has been decorating a particular tall pine along the southbound toll road near Mile Marker 58.2 is just another odd Garden State roadside attraction.
Whoever is doing it - and why - the annual ritual near the Tuckerton exit began overnight Monday. Motorists could see a large gold star hanging from a bough as they whizzed by Tuesday morning.
If the decorator follows his or her own tradition of at least four years, more ornaments will appear in coming weeks until the lower branches are weighted with dozens of Christmas balls, ornaments, tinsel and garland.
No one has ever admitted to being the Secret Santa, nor have parkway officials taken a hard stand against the practice.
One year, the wind - or perhaps a would-be Grinch - removed the ornaments just as quickly as they were placed on the tree. The undeterred decorator kept replacing them.
"We really don't have a standard policy on the way we deal with it," said Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates the 172-mile parkway. "It's not a huge deal that the decorations are there. Our only concern is that this is a safety issue. Someone is parking their car on the side of the busy road, getting out of their car, and doing this."
It is unclear whether the decorations are meant simply to spread holiday cheer or as a memorial to someone who died in an accident near the spot, Feeney said.
The highway authority usually allows such memorials to stay up for about two weeks, then removes them and attempts to return the items - flowers, candles, sometimes even a picture of the victim - to the next of kin.
When Christmas is over, the parkway decorations disappear as mysteriously as they appeared.
Motorists should accept this holiday phenomenon as a part of the Garden State landscape, says Mark Moran, cofounder of Weird NJ magazine and website and the History Channel show Weird U.S.
Other similar, unusual displays have cropped up around New Jersey in recent years, Moran said, including a fully decorated tree that turns up every Christmas season in the middle of the train tracks in the Hudson River tunnel between Jersey City and Manhattan.
And there's the Route 23 decorator, who places seasonal and odd decorations - everything from a Halloween witch, to a large rubber chicken and a mailbox - on utility poles along the road in West Milford.
These incidents often involve a mysterious perpetrator, Moran said, making them more interesting.
"All in all, it brightens the day," he said. "So we encourage this kind of creativity."
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or email@example.com.