Futures mostly shrugged off news that weekly unemployment claims hit their lowest level in 15 months, but stocks were still poised for a gain in a holiday-shortened session Thursday.
Rises in global markets could help Wall Street keep its four-session winning streak alive.
Trading will stop at 1 pm New York time, three hours earlier than usual, giving an investors an early Christmas Eve sendoff.
fell by 28,000 to a seasonally adjusted 452,000 in the week ended Dec. 19, from 480,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department said.
That was the lowest tally since the week of Sept. 6, 2008, just before the failure of Lehman Brothers accelerated the financial crisis.
A separate report showed orders for long-lasting goods edged up 0.2 percent, less than analysts had expected but weighed by transportation orders. Outside that sector, orders surged in November.
Dow futures were about 22 points above fair value before the release of the economic numbers and remained there after the release.
Though volume is expected to be light, health-care stocks could be active, with the Senate approving the health care reform bill in a historic Christmas Eve vote. House and Senate conferees will have to work out the differences between their two bills some time after the holidays.
Some stocks to watch include Aetna, Cigna and Humana. The SPDR KBW Insurance ETF also could be worth watching.
Futures also were helped by a weakening dollar, which fell 0.4 percent.
The only other number on the calendar today is the weekly report from the EIA on natural gas inventories, out at 10:30 am.
The earnings calendar is empty today, but memory chip makers like Micron Technology and SanDisk could be worth watching, with industry tracker DRAMeXchange saying such chips could be in short supply next year as companies replace PCs and consumers demand more capacity.