Up to 20 inches of snow were expected in some areas, including Philadelphia, where the Eagles-Vikings NFL game was postponed, and Boston, where an aquarium had to protect - of all things - penguin ice sculptures from the elements. More than 1,400 flights had been canceled out of the New York City area's three major airports alone, and more cancellations were expected Monday.
For many people, however, the storm's timing was perfect: the day after Christmas, a Sunday, no school for at least a week.
"Love snowy days when I don't have to go anywhere. Staying in - just me and my cozy new socks," author Neesha Meminger wrote on Twitter from her home in the Bronx.
She told the AP she's able to savor the moment because her children, ages 6 and 9, are on holiday break: "If this was during the school week, I would be cursing."
Colleen and Graham James of Montclair, N.J., represented the other side of the coin. They were at Newark Airport with their two young children and their dachshund, trying to reach family in Iowa, but their connecting flight to Chicago was delayed more than two and a half hours.
"We left the day after Christmas to avoid the Christmas craze. I guess that didn't work out so well," Colleen James said.
Graham James was resigning himself to postponing their trip a month. "Now we're worried about just driving home because of the crazy snow," he said.
Airlines canceled flights throughout the Northeast and at airports in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago and the Carolinas. They expected more cancellations Monday, but were trying to rebook passengers and hoped to resume normal operations Tuesday.
U.S. Airways had already canceled 110 Monday flights by Sunday afternoon - spokesman Jim Olson said that was to try to keep passengers and crews from getting stranded at airports.
New York's Kennedy Airport was calm, apparently because many would-be travelers elected not to trudge to the terminal in hopes of getting rebooked.
Andrew Brent's flight to Florida was repeatedly pushed back, and the New York mayoral spokesman thought he might have to wait until Monday to meet up with his wife and son for vacation. But he added, "I'll get down there eventually so I'm not terribly worried."
Amtrak, meanwhile, canceled train service from New York to Maine on Sunday evening, after doing the same earlier for several trains in Virginia. Bus companies canceled routes up and down the East Coast, affecting thousands of travelers.
Kate Lindquist, on her way home from New Hampshire to New York City, was greeted with a handwritten sign at a Boston bus station: "Sorry, we are closed today."
"To have this happen on a Sunday during a holiday weekend is incredibly frustrating," she told the AP in an e-mail.
The Northeast is getting the brunt of the storm. Forecasters issued a blizzard warning for New York City for Sunday and Monday, with a forecast of 11 to 16 inches of snow and strong winds that will reduce visibility to near zero at times. A blizzard warning was also in effect for Rhode Island and most of eastern Massachusetts including Boston, with forecasters predicting 15 to 20 inches of snow. A blizzard warning is issued when snow is accompanied by sustained winds or gusts over 35 mph.
As much as 18 inches could fall on the New Jersey shore with wind gusts over 40 mph.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter declared a snow emergency and urged residents to stay off the roads.
The NFL moved the Philadelphia Eagles' game against the Minnesota Vikings from Sunday night to Tuesday because of the blizzard. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who does football commentaries after Eagles games, was not amused.
"This is football; football's played in bad weather," Rendell told KYW-TV. "I, for one, was looking forward to sitting in the stands throughout the snow and seeing an old-time football game."
In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino declared a snow emergency that bans parking on all major streets, and the New England Aquarium bubble-wrapped its four 5-foot-tall penguin ice sculptures to protect them from the wind and snow.
More than 2,400 sanitation workers were working in 12-hour shifts to clear New York City's 6,000 miles of streets. Not that Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted people to use them.
"I understand that a lot of families need to get home after a weekend away, but please don't get on the roads unless you absolutely have to," Bloomberg said.
In Rhode Island, emergency officials encouraged businesses to let employees report to work late Monday, saying road conditions for the early morning commute Monday would be treacherous.
The snow was easier to take for people who just stayed home.
"The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we've no place to go, I'm gonna uncork a Bordeaux," Paul White said on Twitter from his home in Point Lookout, N.Y. In a phone interview, the lawyer - who was indeed sipping a glass of red wine - said the snow gave his family a chance to be together and cozy another day.
The weather deterred some people from hitting day-after-Christmas sales, but that appeared to be a relatively light blow for retailers coming off a strong shopping season.
"People will just wait a day to do exchanges and use their gift cards. It's no big deal," said Greg Maloney, CEO of the retail practice of Jones Lang LaSalle, which manages malls across the country.
There were more snow plows than shoppers at Jackson Premium Outlets in Jackson, N.J., but the weather didn't keep Shoba Dorai from making the trip from Edison with a girlfriend and her friend's two toddlers. Several stores closed by 3 p.m.
It was not that bad when we left this morning around 10:30," Dorai said. "I guess it was not a great idea, though."
In southern New Jersey's Philadelphia suburbs, supermarkets were crowded early in the day and there was a run on snow shovels. Stores were quiet by late afternoon - though there was a line at the Red Box video kiosk outside a Walgreen's store in Cherry Hill.
The monster storm is the result of a low pressure system off the North Carolina coast and strengthened as it moved northeast, according to the National Weather Service.
Travel misery began a day earlier in parts of the South, which was hit with a white Christmas for the record books.
Columbia, S.C., had its first significant Christmas snow since weather records were first kept in 1887. Atlanta had just over an inch of snow - the first measurable accumulation on Christmas Day since the 1880s. About a foot of snow fell in Norfolk, Va., the most seen there since a February 1989 storm dumped nearly 15 inches.
Utility companies in the Carolinas said more than 100,000 people lost power because of the storm, and only about a third had service restored by midday Sunday.
The National Weather Service said 8.5 inches of snow fell in Franklinton, N.C., about 30 miles north of Raleigh, from Saturday through Sunday.
Diane Smith, 55, said her power was out for about four hours there Sunday morning, but she and her husband have a generator. Relatives, including two grandchildren, who live nearby came over for breakfast and to get warm before going home after power was restored.
"It's beautiful," Smith said. "As long as I have power, I love it."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, N.J.; Tim Jacobs in Newark, N.J.; Ron Todt in Philadelphia; Page Ivey in Columbia; Jacquelyn Martin and Norm Gomlak in Washington; Ben Nuckols in Baltimore; Eric Tucker in Providence, R.I.; John Raby in Charleston, W.Va., and Beth DeFalco in Jackson, N.J.