The Washington area exulted in a May-December romance yesterday: Only 11 shopping days before Christmas, a week short of the shortest day of the year, temperatures around the Beltway ranged into the 70s (although the official National Airport high was only 64 degrees).
At 5:50 p.m., when Nancy Reagan pushed the button to light the National Christmas Tree, it was still around 60 degrees -- a touch of California weather for former governor Reagan.
"That's what happens when you have a weatherman for Santa Claus," said emcee Willard Scott, a little flushed behind his beard.
But if the weather played Cupid around Washington, it was funnel and Blitzen elsewhere in the country. Tornados touched down in Texas; thunderstorms and freezing rain pelted the Midwest; and winds gusting up to 60 mph whipped up sandstorms in southern California. At International Falls, Minn., the day peaked at 4 degrees, up from 16 degrees below zero overnight.
A warm air mass over the Eastern seaboard brought record high temperatures up and down the coast; the National Weather Service said that some Washington area neighborhoods tied the 1889 record of 71 degrees.
It was the kind of day that made people shout; made a few cry; even made a few pout, and they'd tell you why:
"Wonderful, isn't it!" waved a bicycle messenger, do-si-doing with one hand on the bar and fanning himself with his helmet.
"Sssssssssssss," hissed a Korean K Street vendor, who began throwing his $3 woolen mufflers into a van after only "one person in three hours" made a purchase.
"When it's this warm, it doesn't really seem like Christmas," shrugged Salvation Army bellringer Martha Murray, who rang patiently alongside her contribution kettle above the Farragut North Metro station. "A lot of people are taking a break or getting out early trying to shop, and they're running by saying, 'Oh, I'll catch you tomorrow'."
Stunned by the sunshine, stalled vendors slumped behind stacks of unshuffled woolens. Above the Connecticut Connection, an animated Santa doll wagged his head, but the relentless holiday Muzak had been silenced.
Inside the door of Charlie's Crab restaurant, beside the pot of hot spiced cider that has been the restaurant's holiday gift to departing diners, a stack of unused styrofoam cups was upended.
On the Ellipse, behind their candy-striped fence, the nine reindeer borrowed from the National Zoo ignored the blandishments of small children and kept their noses to the ground, apparently unable to reconcile their holiday duties with the hot weather.
They may have to get used to it: According to the National Weather Service, area temperatures will probably remain in the 50s (nighttime lows in the 40s) through the weekend.
Though there are shower possibilities early Sunday and again Tuesday, a Weather Service meteorologist said snow is still no show: "It should start to cool off around Tuesday, but the thinking now is that the precip will end before the colder air comes in."
The president had been scheduled to flick the switch for the national tree, a 30-foot Colorado blue spruce, from the South Portico of the White House. But as a crowd of 20,000 watched on a huge video screen, Reagan said, "I've talked myself into the Christmas spirit. I'm going to give a gift right now. I'm not going to light the tree: I'm going to let Nancy do it."
But there was a moment of confusion, as the president asked the crucial question, "Where's the button?" before the tree burst into a nova of red star-shaped bulbs.
The tree will remain lit until midnight, Jan. 1; various bands and choirs will provide nightly entertainment from 6:30 to 9 p.m. through Dec. 23.