It had the makings of a nightmare before Christmas: a snowstorm that wrecked the last big shopping weekend of the holiday calendar. Holiday travelers lost in a tangle of flight cancellations. Delivery people fighting ice and snow. Zhu Zhu Pets tragically left homeless.
So as winter arrived Monday, people along the East Coast set out on slick sidewalks and roads to do the shopping they had hoped to finish over the weekend, did battle with airport lines and crossed their fingers that they weren't too late to order online.
This holiday, the shortest day of the year was also the most frantic.
Take Helen Pease. On Saturday, she left her house in Southampton, N.J., at 7 a.m., armed with a gift list 20 names long and even a schedule of which stores to hit when. Thanks to the snowstorm that ravaged the East Coast, all she came home with was comfort food.
Her solution: She split up her last vacation day of the year, using half Monday and half Tuesday, to get all her shopping done. She stopped at the American Eagle in Moorestown Mall to buy for her nephew.
"I just can't get the flu," she concluded. "I was going to use that day for the flu."
That's the way it's gone in a holiday season best described as star-crossed. From the beginning, there was the feeble economy. By the end, there was even a fire at Macy's flagship store in New York's Herald Square and video of a Washington cop pulling a gun at a snowball fight.
And then there was the winter storm, which dumped 16 inches of snow on Washington and nearly 2 feet on Philadelphia. It rendered a day chain stores call Super Saturday — the last big shopping day before Christmas — decidedly less super.
For retailers, there was an upside: Many of those snowed in took to their computers to check off their lists. Online sales Friday and Saturday were about one-quarter higher than last year.
And stores tried to take some pressure off the shortened shopping calendar. Amazon extended its standard-shipping cutoff for Christmas delivery by a day. Macy's offered free shipping through Monday, J.C. Penney through Tuesday, for online purchases.
Delivering gifts no easy task
Of course, the online option had its problems, too.
Joe Scialabba, a 20-year veteran driver for FedEx, spent a treacherous morning Monday trying to navigate his truck around snow drifts that made his route on Long Island an obstacle course.
"It's a bonus today if they get their package. That's my motto," he said. "All your little shortcuts are gone. You got to go up the driveway, some of these driveways are 300 feet."
Monday was already expected to be the busiest day of the year for UPS. A spokesman said the company would have "all hands on deck" but expected some trucks would have problems reaching places not yet fully plowed.
By the time the snow stopped on Sunday in New York, there were other elements to worry about. Hundreds of shoppers had to be evacuated from Macy's in Herald Square after a fire in an escalator. Macy's said it would stay open 24 hours a day, from Monday through Christmas Eve.
'Scavengers' at airports
At the airports, some of the misery of the weekend had lifted, but there were still long lines and busy booking agents in many cities.
In Washington, Molly Fasterling's first try at a flight to St. Louis was canceled, and she missed the second while waiting to check in. She was hoping to fly standby eventually.
"We're hoping everyone else is going to miss their flight, too, and we can take their seats," she said. "We're scavengers."
Delta Air Lines added 6,500 seats on Monday to try to clear out its passenger backlog. United added 16 flights, including a 757 to get 182 people from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles.
It generally takes airlines three days to get people where they're going after one day of major cancellations, said Lance Sherry, an associate professor who studies airline delays at George Mason University. He expects this one to take more like five.
In the meantime, those lucky enough not to be stuck in a terminal raced the clock to finish their shopping.
"I'm so tired of holding bags," said Donnetta Jones, who emerged from a Macy's in downtown Philadelphia loaded down with gifts for five grandchildren. She had hoped to knock out much of her shopping over the weekend.
"But a lot of places weren't open, so I had to turn back around," she said. Now she hopes to finish by Wednesday.
Shopping a diversion to outages
For people hit even harder by the storm, shopping was an escape — not a diversion, not a chore, but something to do outside homes that days later were still without power and heat.
In Kentucky, 90,000 homes and businesses were still without power on Monday. The total was 130,000 in Virginia and West Virginia.
At the Charleston Town Center Mall in West Virginia's state capital, Linda Stewart said her family may have to wait until Christmas Day before the lights are back on. That means burning wood for warmth and sponge-bathing with water heated in a turkey fryer.
"I just thank the Lord that both my boys have full-time jobs, and their girls work," she said. "Not everyone is as fortunate as we are."