The number of Americans applying for first-time jobless aid (search) unexpectedly fell by 5,000 last week, according to a government report released Thursday that offered a dose of cheer for the job market.

The Labor Department (search) said 326,000 idled workers filed for unemployment insurance (search) at state offices in the week ended Dec. 25, down from a revised 331,000 a week earlier.

A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors at play in the drop since seasonal adjustments accounted for the effects of the holiday-shortened week.

First-time jobless claims defied Wall Street economists' expectations for a rise to 335,000 claims from the originally reported 333,000 claims in the week ended Dec. 18.

The widely watched four-week moving average, seen as a truer reflection of the labor market than the more volatile weekly figure, also fell, dropping to 333,500 from 339,500 the prior week.

However, the number of people continuing to claim benefits after a week on the rolls rose by 29,000 to 2.76 million in the week of Dec. 18, the latest period for which the figures are available. The so-called continued claims have been steadily trending downward for more than a year, a sign people are having an easier time finding work.