'Twas the day after Christmas and all through the towns, shoppers were spending with seasonal fervor.

While some were hustling to return gifts yesterday, many more were honoring another Christmas tradition -- the day-after shopping spree -- as they scooped up half-price holiday decorations and pawed through racks of winter clothes and stacks of sale linens.

Shopping downtown in the District was sparse, but many shopping malls in the suburbs did a brisk business, to judge from spot checks and reports of merchants.

At Springfield Mall in Virginia, for example, a silvery sea of cars lapped at stores stuffed with bargain hunters.

In J. C. Penney's, Sally Byington and her 15-year-old daughter, Barbra, juggled armloads of half-price Christmas decorations and inspected what was left of the holiday wrapping paper. "We came first to return something; now we're stocking up on bargains," Byington said.

Of course, she added, shopping was just a second choice. She wanted to hit the slopes, but "there's no snow for skiing!"

Meanwhile, Emily Blatt was making numerous trips through Penney's linen department, stacking her loot at the register--white curtains, blue towels, coral pillows, plaid comforters and sheets. "I'm doing all the bedrooms for the family," she said beaming.

Blatt, from Los Angeles, is visiting her son and daughter-in-law in Dumfries, Va., and decided that her Christmas gift to them would be to help decorate their new house. Since she had so much to buy, she priced the items first and waited for them to go on sale after the holiday. "I think a lot of people did that this year," she said.

And in Marianne's dress shop, Shari Smith, 19, with the help of her boyfriend, Phil Peters, found a dress to replace the "ugly one my mom got me"--after rejecting a lacy-collar offering as "too frilly."

While there were no hard figures on the number of shoppers out yesterday, many store managers had good news to report.

The volume of day-after-Christmas shoppers was "unbelievable," said Ken Carlson, manager of the Maryland K mart on Connecticut Avenue. He said that there were as many people in his store yesterday as on Christmas Eve.

"We're really surprised," he said, adding that there were few returns and lots of customers taking advantage of sales.

The picture was not as bright at the Landover K mart, which didn't have many of the advertised sale items because it is shutting down, according to the manager there.

The Sears store at Lake Forest Mall in Gaithersburg reported a good turnout, as did the Riggs Plaza Drug Fair in Chillum. Channon Green, manager at the Drug Fair, said that Christmas items and clothes were big sellers, but he added that the store was also selling plenty of food because the nearby grocery store was closed for the day.

One happy post-Christmas sight was a stable of huge stuffed animals that have taken up residence for the past week in a lot near the intersection of Beauregard Street and Rte. 236 in Lincolnia, Va.

From a modest white school bus borrowed from a local Baptist church, Nathan Smith of Alexandria has been selling 4-foot-tall Smurfs, white unicorns, ferocious-looking lions, tame-looking gorillas and giant ETs.

Smith said that he sold hundred of the animals in the last few days before Christmas and a few yesterday. His wife, Wanda Smith, said that the Smurfs, ranging in price from $15 to $55, were the season's biggest seller. She added that while plenty of parents had bought animals for their kids, her customers were "mostly adults buying for adults."