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."
For retailers, there was an upside to the winter storm: Many of those snowed in took to their computers to check off their lists. Online sales Friday and Saturday were up about 25 percent from 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.
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.
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."