Forget what the holiday music in the department store is telling you. It's not beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
That happened weeks ago.
Hark to this: Santa arrived at White Marsh Mall on Nov. 16, Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville held a well-attended holiday open house seven days earlier, and Wayne Thomas' tree farm in Manchester sold an evergreen - a fresh-cut evergreen - just before Halloween.
It's "Christmas creep," propelled by retailers and shoppers alike.
"We get calls earlier and earlier every year: `When are you going to open?'" said National Christmas Tree Association President Jim Corliss, whose farm in Maine - breaking a 24-year custom - let customers buy pines before Thanksgiving this season.
"In our family, we decorated the week before Christmas," Corliss said. "That tradition, I don't think it's prevalent anywhere in the country anymore."
People trying to get a jump on the most gift-intensive, decoration-heavy, tradition-laden season of all are jumping right over other holidays.
The New York City-based International Council of Shopping Centers, surveying consumers last month, found that 28 percent start shopping for gifts before Thanksgiving and 21 percent buy year-round.
Nearly three-quarters of the shoppers intended to get started about the same time as last year, but 17 percent planned to begin earlier.
"As soon as Halloween is over, that's it, isn't it? The decorations start ... the Christmas trees go on sale," said Michael Baker, director of research for the council, which found that most employees began decking the malls Nov. 1 this year. "The retailers are attempting to create the mood, so people are probably responding to that."
Most businesses swear that they're not starting any sooner, but some displays nearly beat the kids back to school.
"We start working on things in September," said Donna Sage, marketing director for Homestead Gardens, which is filled with 25 decorated trees, a sprawling train set and miniature villages by Thanksgiving. "People come in and think it's really early, but if you look at the magnitude of the place here, that's the reason."
It has worked well for Homestead. Holiday sales rival business in the spring, the big season for garden centers.
But Larry Compeau, executive officer of the Society for Consumer Psychology, doesn't put much stock in the common gripe that retailers are stretching the season a bit more each year. If anything, he said, shoppers are starting earlier because they're busier and pickier.
Store decorations have gone up before December for as long as he can remember, and he thinks people secretly like it.
"It's psychologically comforting to go Christmas shopping two weeks before Thanksgiving and complain that the stores have their Christmas decorations up," said Compeau, a marketing professor at Clarkson University in upstate New York. "It's a pattern. ... We've done this for years."
Jay Stewart White, a co-owner of Baltimore Research, who has been told by focus groups that they wish radio stations would play holiday music sooner, said it all boils down to that "very unique American pastime" - shopping.
"I think people are looking for diversions these days," he said. "I also think they're looking for excuses to spend their money."
The Rev. Terry Martin-Minnich has mixed feelings about the long lead-in. As Roland Park Presbyterian Church's associate pastor, she shares religious leaders' concerns about the commercialization of Christmas. But if early ads and light displays help spark a spirit of generosity, "then maybe that's not wrong at all," she said.
Martin-Minnich would love to see people elongate the season at the other end, actually. Few celebrate the 12 days of Christmas leading to Epiphany, Jan. 6, observed as the day Magi bearing gifts visited the infant Jesus.
"I don't think the holidays - the specialness of the holidays - can be overdone," Martin-Minnich said.
Columbia resident Barbara Olmert, 52, says she thinks the increasingly longer season reflects an urge to savor. She loves it all: the traditions, the family togetherness, the decorations.
Especially the decorations.
"I'm a holiday junkie, so I put them everywhere: the bathroom, the living room, the kitchen, everywhere," she said, laughing. "Everybody else is in the mall being crazy that day after Thanksgiving; I figure I'd rather be in my house, putting my decorations up."
To welcome her daughter home from Florida this year, Olmert started earlier than usual and hung a wreath on her garage door two weeks ago, when most neighbors had Pilgrim decorations out and one stoop still had a pumpkin.
Olmert's family decorated on Christmas Eve when she was a child, but now she gets to set the schedule - and she wants more than a week before she has to undeck the halls.
"It takes a lot of time to set it up, so you might as well enjoy it," she said.