After the close of business tonight at Dulles Town Center, the real work will begin.

Into the wee hours of tomorrow morning, workers elevated by 40- and 65-foot hydraulic lifts will begin hanging icicle lights from the rafters and stringing garlands on the railings. Within the next two weeks, they will install the holiday mice -- a hot-air-balloon mouse, an aviator mouse and a storybook mouse -- and put a spruced-up Santa's house in place, with new mailboxes where children can drop off wish lists.

Retailers will be busy trimming, as well. By morning, mannequins at Victoria's Secret will be wearing pink Santa hats and matching fur-edged skirts, and the "panty table" in the front will be replaced by a nine-foot Christmas tree with keychain ornaments that read "Very Sexy," said manager Julie Calderon.

"Everywhere you look is going to be holiday at Dulles," said Allison Fischer, the mall's marketing manager.

For those who have yet to rake their fall leaves or pull out their wool sweaters, it may be hard to believe that Christmas is here. But for anyone shopping at the mall last week, it was difficult to miss the signs: Candy-cane-striped stocking stuffers were squeezed in next to the discounted jack-o'-lantern boxer shorts at Old Navy, while at Hecht's, the soundtrack featured the unmistakable strains of "Ding Dong! Merrily on High" just before Fleetwood Mac.

By Nov. 1, most American malls have begun decorating for the holidays -- most for Christmas, some for Hanukah or Kwanzaa, according to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers, the ICSC.

Some shoppers welcome the onslaught of the new season; others cringe.

"There's no autumn, no Thanksgiving or turkeys. It goes straight from Halloween to Christmas," said Kim Edwards, 28, who stopped by the mall Tuesday night to buy a pair of pants for work. She said she felt assaulted by the red-and-silver displays. "I think it's way too early."

Retailers view November and December as crucial months that can bring in 25 to 40 percent of a store's annual sales, said Patrice Duker, a spokeswoman for the ICSC.

Individual stores decide how early to introduce their reindeer neckties and wrapped gift sets, partly basing their timing on the economic outlook. This year, some retailers are concerned that higher energy and gasoline prices could curb consumer spending, Duker said.

The competition for holiday dollars keeps shopping centers scrambling for creative ways to reintroduce the all-too-familiar annual spending spree.

At Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets last week, many store window displays reflected the foliage outside, but the lampposts along the walkway were adorned with wreaths and bows. In her office, assistant general manager Amy Cross-Monroe pulled out her encyclopedia-thick Christmas file and ran through the holiday schedule.

The Girl Scouts and the Loudoun Shooting Stars soccer team will be on hand to wrap presents, she said, and fife and drum players will entertain. Santa will sit by the tree in the food court, stroll the sidewalks ("for those who are scared of sitting on Santa's lap," Cross-Monroe said) and give carriage rides with Belgian horses in the parking lot. Tickets will be available in advance.

"It's the same Santa, but he's going to be a busy, busy man," she said.

All told, the outlet mall will need at least 200 new employees over the holidays -- both for the 110 stores and for the shopping center, including extra customer service and security staff.

Fair Oaks Mall's holiday plans center around a new display, where Santa's visitors can walk into a giant snow globe, complete with nontoxic simulated snow that dissolves when touched.

The scene, with a six-figure price tag, was sponsored in part by the Walt Disney Co. and Walden Media as a promotion for their movie "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which will be released Dec. 9.

An event is planned for Nov. 15 to unveil the display, with its life-size stuffed animals and a big clothes closet, or wardrobe, through which people can walk. A marching band, ideally, will parade in with Santa.

"He'll 'ho-ho-ho' and welcome everybody, and then we'll start the photographs," said Ferris D. Kaplan, marketing and sponsorship director at Fair Oaks.

Back at Dulles Town Center, some stores have been ready for weeks. Bath & Body Works was among the first to re-dress completely, even down to red currant lip gloss stocking stuffers and a "Be Joyful" imperative posted by the cash register.

Assistant manager Eliana Negron said she has become used to seeing customers' mixed reactions to the sight of snowflakes strung from the ceiling by the third week of October. "I guess it depends what kind of Christmas person you are," she said.

For Ashburn resident Dave Lillie, 51, who was strolling with his wife, Sue, among the Lenox Winter Greetings Fine Dinnerware and the Waterford crystal ornaments at Hecht's Christmas Shop, the early arrival of the season was no problem.

"I love Christmas, so this is great," he said.

At Dulles Town Center last week, Christmas decorations were already up at Hecht's, above, and at the Hallmark store, below.