For merchants of the holiday trade, Tuesday morning dawned as a giant commercial pratfall.

A scant 48 hours before Christmas, a storm plastered the area in ice. Ice was everywhere. Washington drivers went into a mass tailspin. And all those Christmas shoppers, who were supposed to invigorate lackluster holiday business, scarcely could stand on the sidewalks in front of their homes, much less sojourn to stores.

By midday much of the ice that glazed the area had melted, and as the afternoon waned, business was brisk in many stores, leading retailers to muse on clouds' silver linings, and other proverbial truths.

"Traffic's been better than we expected -- today may have been something that looked negative, but turned out positive," said William McDonald, vice president for marketing for Woodward and Lothrop's 15 stores in the metropolitan area. "Our feeling is that people who had the day off from work or school went shopping. The ice may have been the straw that helped the camel rather than broke his back."

A crowd braved the ice to get to Evans Distributors and Jewelers in Rockville where credit cards are not accepted, but where jewelery is half-priced and electronic TV games are selling like electronic TV games.

A late afternoon call to the store: "Hello, Evans. Can you hold?"

Minutes pass. Then, "Evans -- oh, ah, can you hold again?"

At last, store manager Dan Palmisano gets on the phone and says, "Yeah, we're really busy. The only thing the ice did was slow down our traffic, but today we're getting alot of government workers who decided not to go to work."

"I think we'll salvage the day," said Washington Board of Trade Retail Bureau director Leonard Kolodny. "A lot of people who decided not to go to work, ended up going shopping. The streets were clear, the kids were home, it became a festive day."

At White Flint Mall, spokesman Maurice Perreault reported "a good crowd," and said, "From what I can see, 85 percent have packages."

Unfortunately, it has not been a festive season, at least as far as business is concerned, and yesterday's ice capade killed morning shopping at department stores where retailers had hoped to capture earlybird commuters.

"My general assumption is that the storm slowed us up for a while, and then things went back to normal," said Mortimer Leibowitz, a spokesman for the six Morton's cothing stores in the Washington area. "These two days are critical for us. At best it's going to be a miserable Christmas."

In trying to account for the off year, retailers point to everything from weather to interest rates to a nebulous national malaise. "I would have to say it's been a disappointing Christmas," said Jeff Sherman, vice president and store manager of the Bethesda branch of Bloomingdale's. "The excitement, the spirit of Christmas buying, just never seemed to come about."

McDonald said Woodward and Lothrop's sales have been flat, and Theodore T. Bierman of Hutzler's in Baltimore called his company's sales "very soft."

"Every four years, sales have a tendency to dampen," said Kolodny, who called a half-dozen department stores this morning to commiserate after experiencing first hand the treachery of the ice. "Did I groan when I saw the ice? I groaned when I skidded into my front yard, and left two tire tracks on my lawn."