Undated (AP) _ Swarms of shoppers are descending on the nation's malls and stores this holiday weekend, but the jingle of the Christmas cashbox may not be loud enough to spread cheer among shopkeepers.

''I am going to spend less this year because the economy is bad and money is tight,'' shopper Joyce Sylvia of Providence, R.I., said Friday.

A worsening national recession and the Persian Gulf crisis may lead to the worst holiday sales in years. Many people say their Christmas lists are shorter and they're buying cheaper presents.

''People who I might buy a sweater for in good years this year may get gloves or a scarf,'' said Henrietta Beasley of Monroe, Ga.

The day after Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, and, as always, many shoppers got going early. Some even waited outside in morning rain before stores and malls opened.

Larry Henderson, 40, of Chicago, pushed in vain against the door of a men's clothing store before opening time, attracted by large green-and-red signs hawking a half-price sale.

''I stop anytime I see a sign like that,'' said Henderson, a father of three who wants to cut in half his usual $2,000 Christmas-gift tab.

By mid-morning, many stores were crowded - from Manhattan's swank department stores to the shops that ring San Francisco's picturesque Union Square.

But lines at some cash registers were ominously short, substantiating fears of shopkeepers who predicted many people would browse but few would buy.

In Freeport, Maine, a village of factory outlet stores anchored by the outdoors specialty store L.L. Bean, traffic was backed up along Main Street. But even Bean has had its problems in the sagging New England economy.

''L.L. Bean is probably not meeting its expectations, and that certainly is disappointing, but we're just about on par with last year,'' spokeswoman Catherine Hartnett said.

The first few days of Christmas shopping season are scrutinized by retailers because they're considered a barometer of what to expect in their most critical time of year, when they register about half their annual sales.

No one is expecting this to be a great - or even very good - Christmas shopping season. Some pessimists, including retail industry analyst Daniel Barry of Kidder Peabody & Co. in New York, even have said it will be the worst holiday season since the 1974 recession.

While the Thanksgiving weekend has lost some significance in recent years as more consumers shop later and later, it still helps stores decide when to offer sales and what items they must restock.

Consumer spending, which slipped as the economy weakened this year, dropped precipitously after Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2. Not only were consumers shaken by prospects of war, but they suddenly found themselves paying more for gasoline and heating oil.

But the Middle East turmoil has also inspired some merchants, like a Florida discount store offering ''Put a Stain on Hussein'' toilet paper, featuring pictures of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, for $1 a roll.

''It's flying out of here,'' said Jack Rohn, manager of the ''Everything's A $1.00'' store at the Sawgrass Mills shopping mall near Fort Lauderdale, Fla.