'CHRISTMAS officially started on 6 November, when Santa arrived,' says Peter Willasey of Harrods. 'By then, the whole store was totally in Christmas mode - displays finished, Christmas merchandise in place.'

Dedicated shoppers, however, could have started well in advance of Santa's official installation in his Dickensian-themed grotto - Harrods' Christmas department opened at the end of September.

The store would get short shrift in the Dutch town of Assen, where civic chiefs last week banned all signs of Christmas until St Nicholas Day, 6 December. Other House of Fraser stores would be equally unwelcome: 'All Christmas departments had to be in by 5 November, Santas and grottoes up and running by the 13th,' said a spokeswoman.

Even service stations are trying to get in on the act; with a comfortable six weeks to go, Granada Services are already suggesting petrol station forecourts for emergency shopping.

The Regent Street lights were switched on by Richard Branson on 4 November; major British cities including Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester report that their displays are installed and ready. Norwich is lagging behind - its street display will not be illuminated until 25 November. 'Though the decorations have been up for at least a fortnight in the Castle Mall shopping centre,' said a Norwich tourist information official. A fortnight already? 'Unfortunately,' he sighed.

Has Christmas become a spreading, overblown blot on the calendar? At the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield earlier this week, parents and toddlers were queueing at the Santa's Winter Wonderland grotto in the lower arcade. A small girl in a yellow sweater was transfixed by two large stuffed raccoons in red bobble- hats, going endlessly up and down on a motorized seesaw in a heap of fake snow. Did she know when Christmas was? 'Quite soon, I think . . . not next week.' Her mother yanked her away: 'Don't for Christ's sake get her thinking about Christmas, we've only just got over bleeding Guy Fawkes.'

The whole mall was twinkling relentlessly, though the lights hung from floor to ceiling under the great glass central dome were washed out by the bright autumn sunlight. Every pillar was garnished with swags of fake greenery, suspended with satiny baubles, entwined with blinking fairy lights (a migraine-inducing total of 89,720). In the central food- hall, dwarfed by a 30ft fake tree, a woman with seven laden carrier bags groaned: 'It's obscene, really, they have so much already, the kids. I feel ashamed, but what can you do?'

In Rackhams, Birmingham's sedate old department store, similar garlands were embellished with plastic oranges. In the Christmas Emporium on the sixth floor a hideous cacophony was going on as the musical Moving Carousel competed with Mickey's Clock House (Disney characters in cuckoo clocks pop out to sing carols, pounds 149.99). A young woman was filling a wire basket. Was she Christmas shopping already? 'You're joking . . . I've got two birthdays to deal with before I start thinking about Christmas. I work in a shop, these are for our window display. Everyone else has already got theirs up and we don't want to be left behind.'

Rackhams' nearby Rooftop Restaurant was a mercifully Christmas-free zone, with no mince pies available. Mrs Harris from Selly Oak gazed balefully across at the Christmas Emporium over her cup of tea. 'In our day Christmas began a week before. It wasn't all jumbled in with Bonfire Night and Remembrance Sunday.

'Everyone is too greedy, makes too much of the gift side of it.' Her husband chipped in, 'You can't blame the shopkeepers. If people are mugs enough to buy then of course they will start early.' The Harrises have no intention of joining in any undignified Christmas shopping melee. 'We have been buying a gift a month since February.'

There was no sign of an early buying frenzy in Bristol's deserted Broadmead Gallery, despite late-night shopping times on Thursday. Outside in the freezing city centre, men with cranes were hoisting large Christmas trees up lamp-posts and wiring-in illuminated Santas and snowmen. Wasn't it a bit early? 'If we had a pound for every person that's said that tonight, we'd have two pounds. It'll be more like two hundred by the time the things get lit.'

Don't blame the retailer if you are sick of the sight of Santa by Christmas Day, says the British Retail Consortium. 'Some people may be surprised to see Christmas trees in October, but it's a response to consumer demand.' Peter Willasey points out that Harrods' Christmas department trade is up by 30 per cent from last year. 'If it wasn't profitable, we wouldn't do it.'

Those who find Christmas cheer in autumn difficult to stomach, and who don't want to move to Holland, might consider the Scilly Isles. 'We string a few lights round, a fortnight before Christmas,' according to their tourist office. 'Nothing over the top.'

(Photograph omitted)