All Anton Mahne's wife wanted for Christmas was a Pandora bracelet. That, and to walk again.
"I can't do anything about that," Mahne said of his wife's disability, the result of a stroke she suffered after giving birth to their daughter 18 months ago.
But at 8 a.m. Christmas Eve, the Cherry Hill radiologist was among the first in line at the Pandora jewelry store at Cherry Hill Mall.
Yes, in line, with several other flinty holiday shoppers making a mad dash for gifts.
It was crunch time, the final retail push, with swamped shopping centers, jammed parking lots, and eleventh-hour consumers such as Mahne. But give the guy a break.
"I've been on call since Friday, but have off between 7 and 10 a.m.," he said before pulling out his cellphone to show off pictures of his wife, Maria, 34, and baby Julieta.
Behind him, Steve Ott, 58, who was buying his wife a charm for her bracelet, acknowledged that he was just a last-minute kind of guy.
"It's a tradition. I always do this. It feels more like Christmas," said Ott, of Cherry Hill, who was waiting with his son-in-law, Craig Mannon, 31. He also had some more mall miles to log, Mannon admitted.
About 17 million people rushed to cross items off their holiday lists on Christmas Eve, according to a National Retail Federation estimate. A large percentage of them seemed to be in Cherry Hill, where shoppers surged into the emporiums for the perfect - or merely acceptable, given the timing - gift.
Even Santa may have been running late. At his mall photo kiosk outside the Macy's entrance, parents and fidgety kids waited for the big guy, whose chair was conspicuously empty.
Lindsey Edens of Marlton said she had called the mall and was told he would be there at 8. But now, one of his helpers said Santa would arrive at 9. A misunderstanding, apparently.
Why the last-minute visit with Santa, who surely had more pressing things to do Monday than pose with anxious little ones?
"Mommy and Daddy are busy," said Edens, whose husband, Chris, held 6-month-old Zoey, dressed in a frilly, plaid dress, while 18-month Gemma, wearing red, stood by her mother's side.
Behind them, Milar Steiner and her four children, along with two other families, said they have their Santa pictures taken every year on Christmas Eve.
"It's a tradition," Steiner said. Afterward, it would be back home to cook a big family dinner.
Though retailers nationally have reported a dull December following double-digit sales increases in November, Cherry Hill stores said the season had been strong overall, reported Lisa Wolstromer, mall marketing director.
Extended hours and even round-the-clock shopping at Macy's over the weekend helped retailers pick up the pace. The extreme shopping ended at 6 p.m. Monday, though nationally, Target planned to hang in until 9 and Barnes & Noble and Toys R Us until 10.
Volunteers from the Camden County chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women's organization that wraps gifts to raise money for hospitals and medical research in Jerusalem, were to, yes, wrap up at 6 p.m. after one of their busiest seasons ever.
"When people say there's a recession, I tell them, not at Cherry Hill Mall," said Caroline Ross, who chairs the gift-wrap committee and was one of eight on duty Monday.
But for some shoppers, there's never enough time.
Brittney Baron, 18, a college freshman from Port Richmond, started her gift-buying in July. With less than 24 hours left, she was still going in and out of stores.
"I go every year on Christmas Eve, and it's madness," said a cheerful Baron. "It gets me in the Christmas spirit."