What happened

Shares of department store chain J.C. Penney (OTC:JCPN.Q) jumped on Tuesday without any company-specific news driving the gain. Instead, it appears that optimism about a solid holiday season for retailers, coupled with J.C. Penney's expected release of holiday sales results, is pushing up the stock. Shares were up about 10% at 12:10 p.m. EST.

So what

There's been some reason for optimism in recent weeks that holiday retail sales would come in stronger than expected. The Commerce Department reported in December that retail and food sales in November were up 5.8% year over year, and up 0.8% from October on a seasonally adjusted basis.

The front of a J.C. Penney store.

Image source: J.C. Penney.

Later in December, Mastercard SpendingPulse added another data point. The report put retail sales, excluding automobiles, between Nov. 1 and Christmas Eve up 4.9% year over year, the best performance since 2011.

J.C. Penney desperately needs a win. The stock got hammered in 2017, losing more than 60% of its value. It's down a whopping 93% from its 10-year high.

Now what

Whether or not a strong holiday season for retailers in general translates into a strong season for department stores remains to be seen. The Commerce Department data for November put adjusted department store sales up just 1.7% year over year, a much smaller increase than overall retail. Still, even middling comparable sales growth for J.C. Penney might be enough to propel the stock higher.

We'll know more later this week, assuming J.C. Penney sticks with precedent and releases holiday sales data.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.