A MAJOR Christmas festival is set to light up Southampton's waterfront in December.

The city will step back in time to celebrate the arrival of the future in a spectacular royal ceremony that will be the highlight of the city's year.

Star of the show, Cunard's latest ocean-going liner, Queen Victoria, will tower over the Southampton waterfront as the new ship is officially named by the Duchess of Cornwall in the presence of the Prince of Wales.

Thousands of people are expected to gather at Mayflower Park to watch the event live on a giant screen and to enjoy the traditional family fun of a five-day long Queen Victoria Christmas Festival.

With the new liner as the dramatic backdrop, Mayflower Park is set to come alive with sideshows, rides, food and drink stalls while a cast of colourful characters will mingle with visitors.

Expect street urchins, drunken sailors in port for the night with many a story to tell, chimney sweeps, dancers and musicians, and there will also be a chance to spot Charles Dickens or perhaps even Queen Victoria herself.

On, Friday, December 7, the day Queen Victoria is due to arrive at the City Cruise Terminal in the Western Docks, a carnival and lantern procession will leave the Civic Centre at about 6pm and parade through the city centre down to Mayflower Park.

Queen Victoria is due to arrive in port at 7am and sightseers looking for the best vantage points to watch her sail in should head for Mayflower Park - where only pedestrians will be admitted at this time - Town Quay, Weston Shore, Calshot and Hythe Marina.

It is expected that about 2,000 specially invited guests, including many who will fly in from around the world, will watch Camilla say the famous words: "I name this ship..." before sending a bottle crashing against the liner's hull.

The hour-long naming ceremony, on Monday, December 10, will begin at 3.30pm with the arrival of the royal party and top Cunard executives on the quayside close to the terminal.

Following the naming ceremony guests will be invited to embark Queen Victoria and later that evening Cunard will host a celebration gala cocktail party and dinner.

The next day, Tuesday, December 11, Queen Victoria will leave Southampton for her sell-out, ten-day maiden voyage during which she will visit the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Germany and Belgium.

Just before the ship pulls away from her berth a firework display will light up the late afternoon sky over Southampton at 4.45pm. The best place to enjoy the display and then wave bon voyage to the new Cunarder will again be Mayflower Park.

Queen Victoria is due to return to Southampton on Friday, December 21, before departing once again later that day for her Christmas and New Year cruise.

Queen Victoria, which has been constructed in northern Italy, is undergoing final sea trials and fitting-out before she is handed over by her builders, Fincantieri, to Cunard towards the end of next month.

Able to accommodate up to 2,000 passengers in 900 cabins and suites, the ship will feature a wide range of public areas, including the elegant Queen's Room which has been inspired by the style and design of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria's favourite royal residence.

The Mayflower Park events are being organised and hosted by Cunard Line, Southampton City Council and Business Southampton, an organisation set up to raise the profile of the city.