By PAUL WISEMAN and ANNE D'INNOCENZIO, AP Business Writers

Holiday sales rose at the fastest pace in 17 years, even as shoppers grappled with higher prices, product shortages and a raging new COVID-19 variant in the last few weeks of the season, according to one spending measure.

Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracks all kinds of payments including cash and debit cards, reported Sunday that holiday sales had risen 8.5% from a year earlier.

MasterCard SpendingPulse had expected an 8.8% increase. The results covered Nov. 1 through Dec. 24.

They were fueled by purchases of clothing and jewelry. Holiday sales were up 10.7% compared with the pre-pandemic 2019 holiday period.

33 Photos That Show Why You Wish You Were at this Monitor Lizard Christmas Party in Bangkok

Monitor lizard caretakers and enthusiasts gather on Christmas Day at a restaurant in Bangkok to share their love of the often controversial monitor lizard. Although many agree that they are usually shy by nature and will stay away from human beings – unless they are raised by them – they can be aggressive when provoked or hungry – especially in the wild. 

It is a day of fun, food and drink (for lizards and their human caregivers), and prizes.

There are approximately 80 species of monitor lizards known to exist on Earth at this time, and most are considered venomous. According to Singapore’s National Parks agency that venom usually has a “relatively mild effect on (human beings).”

Top 5 Local Sports Stories Of 2021

There were many local sports stories that highlighted 2021, including a couple of firsts. Here are a look at the Top Five, along with a bonus story.

Amazing Nostalgic Photos of Uptown Utica

Check out this awesome collection of photos showing what Uptown Utica used to look like. It's amazing to remember what businesses used to be there.

25 Simple Additions to Make Your Back Yard More Like a Resort Vacation

The pandemic and shutdown of 2020 had people stuck in their homes and nobody was traveling. Many people took the extra time to turn their own back yards into a summer oasis, even though in the northeast, summer weather only lasts 3 months.

Here are some fairly easy ways to make your back yard feel like you're on vacation.