We've all heard this holiday shopping season is "the worst in 30 years." Most retailers haven't used language quite that dire, but the jury will soon be in on just how bad it was.

A couple of big names released news today. The biggest retailer on the block, Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), is sticking by its lowered forecast of comps growth between 2% and 3%. Originally, the Dow component thought comps would rise 3% to 5%, but it changed its tune the day after Christmas.

The retailer's warehouse shopping unit, Sam's Club, continues to pressure overall results. Its comps are expected to decline, weighing down the namesake's forecasted 3% gain.

Things went from bad to worse in a hurry for Federated Department Stores(NYSE: FD), parent of Bloomingdale's and Macy's, which just last week cut its holiday comps forecast to flat to 2% lower.

It now expects a 4.5% drop for the combined period between Nov. 3 and Jan. 4. Comps were off 7.4% in November and are expected to drop 2.5% in December.

Only J.C. Penney(NYSE: JCP), which two weeks ago stood in contrast to other gloomy retailers, offered a ray of hope. At that time, it said holiday results were shaping up ahead of expectations. Penney said much of the same today, and expects comps growth of 4.5%, ahead of the forecasted low single-digit rise. Heavy discounting and increased advertising drew in shoppers just before Christmas.

It's worth noting, too, that Penney's turnaround appears to be the real deal. We can't accuse the retailer of making today's numbers seem better than they are because of weak year-ago comparisons. Same-store sales for December 2001 rose 5.4%. Combined, November and December comps from last year were up 3.7%. Not too shabby.

We'll be watching specialty retailers such as Gap(NYSE: GPS) and Abercrombie & Fitch(NYSE: ANF) and department stores such as Nordstrom(NYSE: JWN) as they report December sales results next week. As it stands, J.C. Penney appears to be the exception, not the rule.