Did you ask Santa for $319.4 million this year? Well, Andrew "Jack" Whittaker must've, and, boy, did the fat man deliver!

The grandfather and construction company owner in Hurricane, W.V., won the largest-ever Powerball payout and leaves today to make the television talk-show circuit tomorrow. Talk about a cyclonic 24 hours.

The small town of 5,200 residents was swarming with media all morning after lottery officials revealed the winning ticket was purchased at a local convenience store. A self-made millionaire already, Whittaker says he's been "blessed his entire life." Of course, after taxes, the jackpot's only $112 million, so we're not that jealous... plus Fools know they're better off investing than playing that silly ol' lottery thing anyway, right?

The FOOL 50, down a half percent today, was one number short of the winning digits.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

A Blue Christmas for Retail

The holiday shopping season kicked off with a bang but wrapped up with a whimper, leaving retailers with eggnog on their faces. A strong start over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend failed to gain any kind of traction through December.

While it may be two weeks before we get a clearer picture of December retail sales, some chains are already reporting a blue, blue Christmas.

Federated Department Stores (NYSE: FD) warned earlier this week it would miss its top-line target, and even the seemingly recession-proof Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT) revealed it was tracking at the lower end of its initial sales projections.

While the lackluster selling season may not leave much of a mark on the discounters, it's going to get ugly for mainstream, full-price retailers like Nordstrom(NYSE: JWN) and J.C. Penney(NYSE: JCP), who were forced to take a chainsaw to their margins with dramatic markdowns to win over hesitant shoppers. As a result of the ambitious holiday promotions, sales may still dip slightly, but profits will fall even further due to the skimpy margins. Even the Fool is having its own year-end blowout sale.

In one of the most bizarre footnotes of this guarded selling season, Amazon(Nasdaq: AMZN) reports the $4,950 Segway Human Transporter has been one of its biggest sellers. Can an aversion to spending on big-ticket items be overcome by the brisk Internet sales of a self-balancing electronic scooter?

If anything, online retailers appear to be the antidote to the lackluster showing of their offline peers. Last week, Overstock.com(Nasdaq: OSTK) announced sales tripled over the first half of the month. Media Metrix pegged online holiday-sales growth at a crisp 29% earlier this month, so it's no wonder the malls were so empty this season. Folks were home, clicking for a segue to the Segway.

Discussion Board of the Day: Amazon

Are dot-com retailers finally having an impact on the results of their bricks-and-mortar brethren? Are folks really laying down a fat $495 deposit for a scooter that's still months away from delivery? Is Rule Breaker Amazon becoming the true bellwether of the retailing industry? All this and more -- in the Amazon discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Taking Stock

First, a bit of good news. The average stock mutual fund will post a gain in this final quarter of 2002. But the bad news is most will finish in the red for the year.

That will mark the third straight year of losses, and the third straight year that bond funds have outperformed stock funds -- something that hasn't happened since the 1930s.

A Wall Street Journal story, citing research by Lipper, says the average fund will likely post a percentage loss in the double digits, though it didn't provide further details. It's not hard to estimate, though, considering the performance of three major indexes so far this year:

Dow Jones Industrial Avg.  -16%
S&P 500                    -22%
Nasdaq                     -31%

Though the last few months have provided some relief, investors -- disheartened by the length of the bear market -- are still wary about stocks, according to the article.

If you're feeling lost and unsure about what to do next, you can start with a special we ran in July, Definitive Advice for a Bear Market. There you'll find tips for enduring and outsmarting this bear. It will help you stay focused on the long term, and perhaps show you that -- although unusually long -- this downturn is part of the normal ebb and flow of the markets. Give it a read.

Quote of Note

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city." -- George Burns (1896-1996)

When to Hire a Pro

Merry Christmas. Now it's back to reality. Life has a way of handing you important high-dollar decisions at inopportune times -- it doesn't care if you have the next four days off from work or are still struggling to assemble your toddler's new Barbie trike.

In moments like these, a financial pro may earn his fee many times over by helping you through sticky situations, such as:

  • Death of a parent: You may be the executor of the estate, but is now really a good time to bone up on all the complexities involved, or to decide how to invest a substantial inheritance?

  • Marriage: You've just tied the knot, and you've decided to blend your finances into one. Sure, your Schmoopy trusts you, but an independent voice in the mix might smooth the way and even point out some tax implications.

  • Divorce: You've just untied the knot. It's hard enough working through all the divorce lawyers and emotional turmoil, but what about the financial implications? Do you still file taxes jointly this year? Can the stay-at-home former spouse still make an IRA contribution?

  • Complex financial products: Term-life and automobile insurance are simple enough that almost anybody can effectively research and purchase them online. But what about complex products like disability and long-term care insurance?

  • Buy ing and sell ing a house: The hallmark of these transactions is a sudden string of big-dollar decisions with little time to think them through. What are the cash-flow implications? Should you plow all of your savings into the down payment, or keep a little for a rainy day?

  • Sav ing for college: It's the last day of the tax year, and you have a little money coming back. You want to make a contribution to a tax-sheltered college savings account for your kids. What are the pros and cons of all the options? Do you have to decide today?

  • Estate plann ing : It's not just about avoiding taxes. Have you thought about who will manage the kids' inheritance should you die unexpectedly? Do you really want them controlling what's left of the life insurance payout at age 18? Should you set up a trust?

  • Retirement: Your employer has hit the skids, and you're being offered an early retirement package. Should you take it? Do you have enough money to retire?

  • Employee stock options: Should you exercise your employee stock options this year or next year? What are the tax implications?

There are many reasons to seek the services of a paid financial advisor. Here are 10 must-knows before hiring a pro. And for instant hands-on help, consider the services of TMF Money Advisor, where a neutral third party, well-versed in financial matters, is just a phone call away.

Shameless Plug: The Best Gift to Give Yourself

No, it's not a shopping spree or a big-screen TV (although those are darned good gifts, too!). It's a clean credit rating, Fool. And if you don't have one, you shouldn't go shopping or get the jumbo TV, either. But we want you to have it all, and we can help. Visit our new Motley Fool Credit Center and learn how to clean up that credit record before the next season of TheSopranos.

Quick Takes

Talk about company spin. AT&T Wireless(NYSE: AWE)announced its plans with Japan's NTT DoCoMo(NYSE: DCM) to roll out high-speed wireless Internet services -- what it dubs "true 3G" -- by the end of December 2004. But if you read the statement in the context of its prior plans, you find that this is actually a delay and rollback of prior plans, as Bloomberg explains.

Minnesota-based fingerprint and facial recognition machine maker Identix(Nasdaq: IDNX) climbed 14% on news that the Defense Department ordered 450 fingerprint-reader machines. The company's written statement provided no financial details and follows its earnings warning 10 days ago.

Picking the holidays for a major family feud, ICN Pharmaceuticals(NYSE: ICN) on Monday said it would remove every director, save one, from the board of its 80%-owned subsidiary, Ribapharm(NYSE: RNA), the maker of Hepatitis C drug Ribavirin. The next day, ICN obtained a restraining order preventing Ribapharm from taking any major business actions. Ribapharm spit back today, saying all it wanted (for Christmas?) was to know whether ICN would spin it off.

In a barometer of holiday retail sales, discount giant Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT) said its same-store sales would rise 2% to 3% for the five weeks ending Jan. 3, rather than its prior guesstimate of 3% to 5%. The company said that demand accelerated into Christmas Eve, but "too little and too late for us to reach our sales plan." Rick Aristotle Munarriz comments on the retail season's blue yule.

And Finally...

Today on Fool.com: A TMF analyst reveals how and why he reduced his percentage of risky stocks.... Fools share their blessings for this year and the year to come.... In Fool's School, what do "points" mean for home buyers?... And the Post of the Day: Can Costco maintain the growth rate of its past?

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Jeff Fischer, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Jackie Ross, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim