The solid job growth wasn't enough to push down the unemployment rate, which stayed 7.8 percent last month, the Labor Department said Friday. The rate for November was revised up from an initially reported 7.7 percent.
Stock futures inched higher after the report was released at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
Robust hiring in manufacturing and construction fueled the December job gains. Construction firms added 30,000, the most in 15 months. That increase likely reflected hiring needed to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy and also gains in home building that have contributed to a housing recovery.
Manufacturers added 25,000 jobs, the most in nine months.
Even with the gains, hiring isn't strong enough to quickly reduce still-high unemployment. For 2012, employers added 1.84 million jobs, an average of 153,000 jobs a month, roughly matching the job totals for 2011.
But the stable hiring last month shows that employers didn't panic during the high-stakes talks between Congress and the White House over tax increases and spending cuts that weren't resolved until New Year's.
That's an encouraging sign for the coming months, because an even bigger federal budget showdown is looming. The government must increase its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit by around late February or risk defaulting on its debt. Republicans will likely demand deep spending cuts as the price of raising the debt limit.
Friday's report did point to some weakness in the job market. For example, the number of unemployed actually rose 164,000 to 12.2 million. The unemployment figures come from a survey of households; the number of jobs that were added each month comes from a separate survey of businesses.
Still, the economy is improving. Layoffs are declining. And the number of people who sought unemployment aid in the past month is near a four-year low.
The December jobs report showed that hourly pay is staying slightly ahead of inflation. Hourly wages rose 7 cents to $23.73, a 2.1 percent increase compared with a year earlier. Inflation rose 1.8 percent over the same period.
The once-depressed housing market is recovering. Companies ordered more long-lasting manufactured goods in November, a sign that they're investing more in equipment and software. And Americans spent more in November. Consumer spending drives nearly 70 percent of economic growth.
Manufacturing is getting a boost from the best auto sales in five years. Car sales jumped 13 percent in 2012 to 14.5 million. And Americans spent more at the tail end of the holiday shopping season, boosting overall sales that had slumped earlier in the crucial two-month period.