The Salvation Army's red kettles are already out, both as a symbol of the season and a sign of the sputtering economy.
The charity's bell ringers once started around Thanksgiving.
For several years, those in Tampa and St. Petersburg have appeared closer to Veterans Day.
"The reason it got pushed forward in the calendar was economics," said Maj. Ronnie Raymer, the commander of the Salvation Army in Hillsborough County. "The need went up, and the income didn't, so we had to do something."
That's especially true this year. Layoffs and foreclosures are driving more people to local charities to seek help with basic needs, holiday relief, even shelter from domestic violence.
At the same time, businesses struggling to survive can't support social service agencies as they once did.
"Just from last year to this year we're thinking it's going to be a 20 percent increase" in appeals for services, said Ana Mendez, public relations coordinator for Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa. "And we're operating with a 20 percent decrease in donations."
Last week's Salvation Army Tree of Lights fundraiser in Tampa drew 460 people — a typical crowd.
But there was a dropoff of developers and real estate agents as sponsors, which is understandable, said Moira Hinson, the army's director of development and community relations in Hillsborough.
"Everybody's trying to survive and persevere," said Joseph Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.
And that affects companies' ability to support local charity.
"For some, it's still on the radar," Narkiewicz said. "For others, things are so tough, it's fallen off the radar."
As a result, some companies give in-kind contributions instead of cash. Lennar Homes, for example, has donated time, materials and services to Metropolitan Ministries' construction of a 12-unit townhome project for women and children.
Meanwhile, charities are bracing for unusually high demand this holiday season.
At the Salvation Army in South Pinellas, requests for holiday assistance are up 40 percent, with more two-parent families seeking help.
The St. Petersburg branch of the army expects to register nearly 1,000 families with about 3,000 children for holiday aid this year.
"That's more than we've done in my six years that I've been here," said Lisa Howard, development director for the Salvation Army of St. Petersburg.
Metropolitan Ministries expects to serve 24,000 families and individuals over the holidays — maybe more, based on what they've seen so far this year. This fall, the charity did a drive to provide school supplies to poor children. It gave out 2,800 backpacks. That's more than four times as many as two years ago.
At Religious Community Services in Clearwater, the demand at the food bank is up by more than 100 percent, said development director Lisa Matzner.
The RCS Haven domestic violence shelter also is seeing an increase. As abusers face foreclosures and layoffs, they try to exert power and control in other parts of their lives, Matzner said.
The result: The number of victims who turned to the Haven went from 56 in October 2007 to 190 this October.
Meanwhile, the items appearing on RCS clients' holiday wish lists include more basic necessities — shoes, blankets, dishes.
"Not things you imagine a child dreaming of for Christmas," Matzner said.
Faced with rising demand and falling donations, local charities are responding in a variety of ways.
Metropolitan Ministries is partnering with Clear Channel radio stations to raise its profile. It also is working with community groups to organize their own holiday food drives.
RCS is working with local businesses now making in-kind donations instead of giving cash. One local barber shop, for example, is giving free haircuts to needy children instead of adopting a family for the holidays. And two Clearwater churches have planted a community garden to grow vegetables for RCS.
And for some chapters of the Salvation Army, bell ringers are out as early as the community can tolerate them.
In South Pinellas and Pasco County, the kettle drive started Friday. It will start Nov. 21 in North Pinellas.
St. Petersburg and Tampa organizers try to do about six weeks of fundraising, so the schedule partly depends on when Thanksgiving and Christmas fall.
"That's always a concern — that if you're out there too early you'll get donor fatigue," said Lisa Howard at the St. Petersburg Salvation Army.
"When we heard that Tampa was going out on Monday, we contemplated" a change to the schedule, she said. But organizers decided to stick with a Friday start.
Outside a South Tampa Publix, bell ringer Belinda Whitfield said the week started well once she got her greeting down.
"I was saying 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy holidays' when I first started, and they were like, 'Hold on,' so I started saying 'Hello,' " she said. "Next week I'll start with 'Happy holidays.' "
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.