Like-for-like sales were 2.2% higher last month compared to December 2010 thanks to some "major one-off factors", according to the report published by the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
The "better than hoped-for" month provided some respite for the embattled high street with overall sales up 4.1%.
In particular, food and drink, clothing, footwear, home accessories and house textiles all enjoyed improved like-for-like sales.
However, this improved performance was explained by the disruption caused by 2010’s snowfall, heavy discounting which slashed retailer’s margins and the Saturday Christmas Eve.
"We’re not witnessing any fundamental change in customers' circumstances," said BRC director general Stephen Robertson.
"A solid December result hasn't rescued a pretty miserable year. Whole-year figures show minimal growth in 2011.
"For many customers, economic reality has bitten again since the New Year and, with consumer confidence returning to levels last seen during the recession, 2012 is expected to be an equally challenging year."
The three-month weighted average for October to December showed like-for-like sales for all categories of goods edge up 0.2%, largely propelled by a 2.1% growth in food items. However, non-food item sales slumped by -1.2%.
KPMG head of retail, Helen Dickinson, added: "Sadly no-one expects this level of demand to be indicative of the year ahead."
Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, it was the highest spending online Christmas to date with sales up 18.5% on a year ago – underlining the structural growth of internet shopping.
By Andy Pearce