For decades it has been one of the few Yuletide rituals that has resisted the inexorable drift back towards summer. While Selfridges opens its Christmas shop in August and supermarkets start stocking mince pies in September, the full switching on of the festive lights in London's Oxford and Regent streets has stayed stubbornly around mid-November.
Until, that is, a global film studio with a chunky marketing budget to promote its $100m (£60m) Christmas blockbuster came along.
The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, this weekend provided further evidence that Christmas just keeps getting earlier by announcing in New York that the switch will be thrown on London's famous West End illuminations on 3 November – up to nine days earlier than last year – after a deal was struck with Disney to promote its new 3-D version of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol.
The £1m illuminations, which will see both the Oxford Street and Regent Street lights go on simultaneously for the first time and the City joining in the display, will be part of a carefully co-ordinated publicity campaign for Disney's festive blockbuster starring Jim Carrey, Colin Firth and Robin Wright Penn.
The world premiere of A Christmas Carol, the 11th feature-film version of Dickens' cautionary tale about the pitfalls of greed, will take place at three cinemas in Leicester Square to coincide with the switching on of the Disney-themed lights. The film's stars are due to appear on the red carpet along with its director, Robert Zemeckis, whose previous credits include Back to the Future and Forrest Gump.
A Disney source yesterday confirmed that the bringing forward of the date for the lighting of the illuminations had been driven by the need to coincide with the premiere, announced earlier this year: "The date for the premiere is part of the grand European tour for the film. The lights have to be on the 3rd of November because that is when the cast is going to be in London."
Disney has spared no expense in its attempts to generate excitement about its state-of-the-art adaptation of the tale of Scrooge and his last-minute Christmas redemption. A specially-adapted train carrying a free exhibition of props from the film and trailers is spending five-and-a-half months touring 40 American cities before its release.
The apparent subjugation of one of the bulwarks of the Christmas calendar to the marketing timetable of a corporation with annual revenues of $37bn will provide further ammunition to those concerned that the commercial aspects of the festive season – worth some £15bn to British retailers – are encroaching too far into previously tinsel-free parts of the year.
Police in Leeds are continuing their investigations after three charity shops and a newsagents were sent anonymous letters last month threatening to vandalise their premises if they carried on selling Christmas cards out of season.
The notes, from the hitherto unknown Movement for the Containment of Xmas, warned that door locks would be superglued if cards were displayed before 1 November.
Those involved with striking the Disney deal, which was two years in the making and will also involve a donation to the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, pointed out that the Regent Street lights were switched on on 6 November last year with Oxford Street following on 12 November. Hitherto, it has taken until the second week of November for all the West End lights to be switched on, with shoppers having to wait in some years until 19 November for the full illuminations.
Mr Johnson said the lights would be accompanied by events to evoke the spirit of a Dickensian Christmas as well as providing a much-needed boost to the London economy.
He said: "It's going to be one of the biggest festive celebrations the capital has ever seen."
Dickens scholars said that the great chronicler of social inequality in Victorian England would be comfortable with the coupling of his novel, first published in 1843, to the Hollywood publicity machine.
Dr Florian Schweizer, the curator of London's Charles Dickens Museum, said: "What Dickens was concerned about was the greed of individuals at Christmas. If the purpose is to encourage people to go out shopping for gifts to give to others at Christmas, and, in so doing, help traders and commerce, then I'm sure he wouldn't mind that."Reuse content