The weather yesterday had about as much respect for Christmas convention as Ebenezer Scrooge.
From the District of Columbia to Detroit and from Columbus, Ga., to Cleveland, record high temperatures were shattered. Fifteen Northeastern, mid-Atlantic and Midwest states recorded new high temperatures for the date.
At National Airport, the National Weather Service recorded 64 degrees at 2:50 p.m., tying the record set in 1939.
Weather service spokesmen said mid-afternoon temperatures were higher than the official National Airport reading elsewhere in the Washington area. They said National readings tend to be cooler on warm days because breezes there are cooled by the Potomac River.
At Dulles International Airport in western Fairfax County, the mercury hit 69 degrees at 3 p.m. At Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County, the high temperature reading was 70 as it was at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County.
The warm air was imported from the Gulf of Mexico by a capricious jet stream in the upper atmosphere. The jet stream, aided by a high pressure system in the southeast that blocked cold air from the Plain States, sent temperatures into the 70s in southwest Virginia.
Even cities notorious for severe winters basked in bright sunshine and warm weather: Boston and Buffalo both recorded temperatures of 61.
In the metropolitan area, Christmas shoppers squinted into the sunshine as they emerged from department stores clutching armloads of packages.
"It's just like Texas," said Marion E. Bornkast, a former resident of the Lone Star state, fresh from a spending spree yesterday afternoon at the Fair Oaks shopping Mall in Fairfax County.
Inside the mall, one of the few Christmassy scenes in town was doing a whopping business. At Santaland, a landscape of papier-mache Matterhorns capped with fluffy cotton "snow," children lined up to chat with Santa.
Lucille Kaericher, the manager of Santaland, said that cotton snow conjured up all the holiday spirit she needed.
"It's the only snow I've seen and all I hope to see," she said. "If it snows for real, I'm gonna cry. If it snows Christmas Eve then that's all right, but then I want it to melt off by the morning of the 26th."
According to the weather service, the chances for a white Christmas are slim. The agency said yesterday that temperatures are likely to stay above 60 today, and above the norm for this time of year (from a low of 31 to a high of 46) for the rest of the week. Temperatures are likely not to dip by much until tomorrow when overcast skies and showers are forecast.
"This year, it looks like we're not going to beat the odds and get a white Christmas," said James P. Travers, a weather service meteorologist.
For the statistically minded, Travers said there is only a 17 percent chance that snow will be on the ground on Christmas, and only an 8 percent chance that snow will be falling on that day.
In the District, there's been no snow on the ground for Christmas since 1976, and none falling since 1969.
"Actually, we're overdue," he said.
Ordinarily at this time of year, the jet stream carries cold winds from Canada and the Arctic Ocean at an altitude of 15,000 to 29,000 feet, according to the weather service.
But right now the pattern has shifted, and those winds are headed out of the southwest, bearing air from the Gulf and even the Pacific Ocean, meteorologists said.
The reason for the change? "Well," said Travers, "there are a whole bunch of theories, but I don't think that any of them are scientifically sure enough to answer that question with any certainty.
That's weatherman talk for don't ask me.