Jackie Doyle says she has learned to brace herself for "the big Christmas rush" and regularly warns new clerks to "just wait till after Thanksgiving." That, Mark Zafarano said, is when "the barrage" begins.
Doyle and Zafarano do not work at Tysons Corner or any of the region's other big shopping malls. But they are confronted each Christmas season by another holiday crush just as determined as those in Bloomingdale's or Woodward & Lothrop: Washingtonians clamoring for year-end divorces.
At Fairfax County Circuit Court, where Doyle and Zafarano work -- as well as in other courthouses in the region -- December is the season for putting asunder. The number of divorces granted there last December jumped to 450, well above the 250 typically granted in any of the 11 other months of 1984.
It's the same in Maryland. Judges there granted an average of 1,345 divorces a month every month last year, but in December the number jumped to 1,729. The District does not keep divorce statistics on a monthly basis, but lawyers who handle divorce cases in the city say December is also their busiest month.
While divorce may appear to clash with the holiday spirit, most lawyers and judges say the practice comes as no surprise.
"People . . . just want to get it over so they can have a pleasant holiday," said Fairfax Circuit Judge Thomas A. Fortkort. "During the holidays you get more people to file because they have to let the families know the marriage isn't going to continue. The reason you file in December is to put your family on notice."
"This is our busiest time of the year," agreed Stephen K. Simpson, an associate in an Alexandria law office that specializes in divorce. "It's incredible . . . . You should see us on a Friday at the end of the year."
That is the day in Virginia when many judges typically grant motions, including divorce decrees. In Fairfax, some circuit court judges have been known to hold sessions well into the night on Dec. 31 in an effort to clear the dockets of pending divorce cases.
Arlington lawyer Betty A. Thompson, regarded as one of the region's leading divorce specialists, says the December motives of many parting couples are largely psychological. "People get very emotional by the holidays," she said. "They see the end of the year coming and they say: 'I want my divorce . . . . All those memories, past years.' "
Another prime motive is taxes. "They all tell me they save money on taxes by filing singly," said lawyer Lawrence T. Brooke as he recently filed several divorce petitions in the Fairfax courthouse.
"I'm sure it does save them money," said Marna S. Tucker, a lawyer in the District who says her telephone never stops ringing between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Kenneth Alonge, 40, an electronics engineer who lives in Springfield and recently filed for divorce, said if his marriage is ended by Dec. 31 there will be some financial gain.
"It wouldn't help me tremendously," Alonge said, "But it will enable my ex to file as head of household, so it will help her quite a bit."
Robert C. Liotta, a Washington lawyer, said people in the throes of a divorce often have difficulty filing a joint return, particularly if they're worried about their spouses' honesty. And Tucker noted that the District, unlike Virginia and Maryland, requires that a divorce be final for at least 30 days before either party can file singly.
Not all those involved in the divorce process are happy about their roles in the December crunch. Elizabeth Guhring, who practices law in the District and Maryland, said she finds it "a very sad period of time for a domestic relations lawyer."
"Every client is highly emotional . . . ," she said, "and here I am planning Christmas presents for my family . . . . "
Hearing examiners in the District, who, like masters in Maryland and court commissioners in Virginia, are integral to divorce procedures, often schedule hearings in December as early as 8 a.m. to accommodate the divorcing couples.
The four masters responsible for hearing divorce cases in Montgomery County Circuit Court typically are swamped this month, according to Suzanne Weed, an office supervisor. "The masters hear them till they're finished . . . . We try to accommodate everyone we can if they can get the paper work in on time."
The hearings are swift, Weed said, usually lasting no longer than 10 minutes -- or, as one lawyer put it: "less time than it takes to get your hair done."
Zafarano, who is court administrator in Fairfax, said divorce cases there are divided among all 11 circuit court judges. Once a couple meets the requirements of Virginia law, "a divorce can be moved pretty quickly through the court," he said.
"I remember one time I told an attorney: 'Gosh, I thought the divorces would be slowing down because of the holidays,' " said Doyle, the Fairfax clerk. "But he said, 'Nooo . . . . This is what they're getting for Christmas.' "