I got six Christmas catalogs in the mail yesterday. Six! Those J. Crew (NYSE:JCG) and L.L. Bean models do look snug in their wool sweaters and fur-lined boots, but I'm not even prepared for Halloween. (Note to the neighbors: If the lights are off, there's no candy here.)

Whatever happened to the venerable and aptly named tradition known as Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving, when crazed shoppers get up at the crack of dawn to elbow little old ladies out of their way in a quest to get the must-have toy of the year? Ah, the good old days.

I haven't been doing much shopping lately, so when my husband and I stopped by a big home design store a few weeks ago and saw piles of Christmas decorations for sale, I thought it was an aberration.

I was wrong. It's called "Christmas creep," a brilliant label coined by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. According to this Associated Press article, more and more retailers have started putting Christmas goods out early to capture a bigger share of holiday-season sales.

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Target (NYSE:TGT), and J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) hope to get people in the holiday shopping mood two months early, the article said. Sears and Kmart kick off their holiday season in late October or early November. A Costco (NASDAQ:COST) representative said the company has always put out its ornaments, gift wrap, cards, and artificial trees as early as September!

For retailers (and anyone who may own stock in those companies), this may be great news. They extend their holiday season and may capture sales that would have gone to other retailers later in the year.

But holiday shoppers, beware. Christmas creep could work for you or against you, depending on how careful you might be with your holiday budget. Retailers put holiday merchandise out early partly because it gives them more time to drain your wallet.

For the planners
If you wouldn't dream of beginning your holiday shopping without a list of family and friends and a budget for each gift (including postage), then an early Christmas may work for you. You'll have more time to comparison-shop. You can put gifts in the mail early and avoid the rush mailing fees.

You can also stretch out your holiday spending over several months, so that the gift purchases will put a less painful dent in the checking account during December. Don't forget about the time you'll free up in those few weeks before Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year's Eve, when you'd much rather be visiting with friends and family instead of frantically running around the mall.

For the rest of us
Venture warily into the holiday madness, especially if you're prone to impulse-shopping. Buy an ornament here and a few candles there, and pretty soon you've spent a big chunk of money before you've purchased any gifts.

Drawing your holiday spending out over a longer time span could mean that you spend more than if you waited until the last minute, if you're not careful.

We could take a cue from the planners. Before the panic of seasonal buying hits, make a list of everyone for whom you plan to buy gifts. Then put an approximate dollar figure next to each name. Looks reasonable, right? Now add it all up. Yikes! (I did this exercise last year and was pretty shocked.)

Even if you don't follow this budget to the dollar, keeping an eye on the bottom line when you venture out for holiday shopping might help keep each purchase in perspective. In the meantime, resist the urge to start celebrating Christmas before Halloween.

Related Foolishness:

Costco is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick, while Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple put most of those Christmas catalogs in the recycling bin. She does not own stock in any company mentioned in this article, and she welcomes your feedback at marydfool@gmail.com.