Blustering bargain hunters jostled with hung-over victims of holiday cheer. Husbands waited idly, sometimes desperately, for the return of wives caught up in a buying spree. Others trudged in long lines to trade in that special that was unwanted for one reason or another.

It was Dec. 26, the Christmas aftermath in the cluttered aisles of downtown department stores and suburban shopping malls where the prices were low and the crowds were eclectic.

Some people were prudently shopping for Christmas future, getting a 364-day head start, mobbing gift-wrap and greeting card counters for half-price supplies. A few still were buying presents for Christmas past.

"You can buy twice as much for the same price," said Lewis Wince outside a Springfield Mall shoe store. "I am going to buy my mother and father Christmas gifts, and my brother and sister-in-law Christmas gifts and my fiancee her Christmas gift. I'm not going to see my family until New Year's so they'll think I bought them before Christmas."

At which Wince's fiancee, Linda Sawicki, a Woodbridge first-grade teacher, pointed to her engagement ring and said, "He even wanted to wait until after Christmas to buy this, but I wouldn't let him wait. I said, 'Uh-uh, you buy it now."

While the suburban malls were packed with people - Tysons Corners manager Stanley Jaffe estimated between 150,000 and 175,000 shoppers were there yesterday - many people appreciated the relative calm downtown.

"Last week there was pushing and shoving," said Evelyn Washington as she stood on F Street NW yesterday with two full shopping bags and her three young children. "You couldn't even cross the street then, but today it's heaven. There are very few people."

Among the thousands of browsers and buyers purposefully making their way from one bargain to another was a contingent of people rarely seen except in the drawn-out holiday season - husbands off from work, or playing hooky, who wound up spending their free at the malls.

"I was just laughing about it," said Springfield Mall's security chief, Jack Switzer. "It's the first time I've seen so many guys sitting around doing so little. They are just waiting and waiting and waiting for their wives, while they exchange their stuff."

One of those waiting patiently, in the company of his two grandchildren, was retired banker Robert M. Clark. He was sitting on a bench outside Raleigh's while his wife, his daughter and her sister-in-law "shopped for bargains" inside.

After buying his grandsons a pretzel and a gingerbread cookie, he said his own shopping list was exhausted. "We've only been waiting here about 10 minutes," he said glancing at his watch. "That isn't too bad, when you have my patience, but you can never tell when the women will be out."

At Bloomingdale's in the White Flint Mall in Maryland, there was a sizable assortment of stranded boy-friends and husbands seen walking aimlessly, for example, in the lingerie department. Others were spotted carrying precariously piled boxes and bags or pushing stroller. Most smiled weakly and said they were enjoying themselves when asked, and several steadfastly refused to divulge their names as they admitted to taking an extra day off from work.

Though the crowds yesterday were not equal to the hordes that descended on the malls the day after Thanksgiving, the parking lots were filled several times over and the rush on left-over Christmas items created chaos in some check-out lines.

"This looks like a disaster area," said Conrad Grunfelder of Silver Spring as he shot a glance at the Lord & Taylor Christmas Bazaar in White Flint where the lines appeared to be growing by the minute.

As the day wore on special help was pressed into service to cope with the rush. "I'm the store manager," said a man in a three-piece suit looking somewhat out of place behind the counter. "I go wherever the heat is." Around noon, said one clerk, the lines extended around the corner of the display.

At Tysons, by 3 p.m., security guard D. Sudduth already was wearily retrieving his fourth lost child.

"It's as busy as it was during Christmas. It's impossible to move about on the mall," he said, "and it's the usual problems. Lost kids. These little toddlers just follow pairs of legs, and all legs look alike to them."

Adding to the crowds were people buying accessories for their newly-acquired Christmas gifts. At the Landover Mall Radio Shack, for instance, manager Hank Keen reported a brisk business in "add-on parts" - stereo cables, fuses, extension cords - the miscellany missed in holiday giving.

Then there were those who would just as soon give back their presents altogether, though at Garfinkel's downtown store yesterday officials said the real wave of returns probably would not start until later in the week.

For some who were making the effort yesterday it could turn into a frustrating business. Kathie Egger, of Annandale, spent her lunch hour trudging around downtown trying vainly to exchange the seal coat her husband had given her for a smaller size or a different fur.

The heavy pink quilted robe was not quite what a young Northwest woman wanted, so she was in Woodward/Lothrop's downtown seeking a refund. "I can't give you my name," she told a reporter, "and let my godmother know I returned the robe I told her yesterday I loved.

At least one of yesterday's shoppers said he had waited until after the holiday to make the trek into the merchant district for philosophical reasons.

"We're today because we rejected the traditional capitalist madness surrounding Christmas," said Darnell Bradford, of Northwest, as he waited for his wife and son to emerge from Hecht's toy department.

"But we needed some material things and the sales give us an opportunity to buy them . . . The stores create a frenzy of materialistic buying. They have people ripping and racing and that eliminates all the good will that is supposed to be here for the holiday."

This story was written by Washington Post staff writer Christopher Dickey based on reporting by staff writers, Lisa Bercovici, Labarabara Bowman, Eugene Meyer and Saundra Saperstein.