SEASONAL MAIL RUSH HEATS UP : TIPS FOR SENDING LETTERS, PACKAGES.
Postal clerks worked harder than Santa's elves Monday, helping customers wrap, stamp and ship gifts across the country and around the globe on what typically is the busiest mailing day of the year.
With only nine days before Christmas, hundreds of gift givers filled local post office lobbies as they lugged bundles of packages and decks of greeting cards.
About 3 million pieces of mail - or twice the daily average - were expected to be dropped off Monday at the post office branch in Van Nuys, the largest in the San Fernando Valley. Twenty million pieces were expected to be collected from all of Southern California.
To handle the crowds, the U.S. Postal Service increased staffing and extended hours. But patience, understanding and a good dose of holiday cheer also helped make the scramble more bearable.
``I feel like they care, because they have so many people working here,'' said Phyllis Karp of Northridge, who was buying stamps at the Woodland Hills office.
Still others say that when it comes to sending gifts, nothing beats planning ahead.
Kelly Aaron of Thousand Oaks had just stuck the last of 55 stamps on her greeting cards before dropping them off at a mailbox. She mailed her Christmas packages before Thanksgiving to avoid the rush.
``I wasn't going to be anywhere near a post office if I could help it,'' Aaron said, pointing at the queue.
Mail sent regular delivery should still make it anywhere within the continental United States before Christmas if sent within the next two days, postal officials said. Afterward, mail must be sent priority or express to guarantee its on-time arrival.
To avoid long lines, customers are encouraged to do their mailing during extended hours, said Terri Bouffiou, a postal service spokesperson representing the Valley.
The Van Nuys office on Sherman Way is open from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays. On Saturday, it will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. On Sunday, the office will be open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call individual post offices for their schedules.
Helping customers ring in a new, less stressful year was a crew from PacifiCare, a health care provider, offering free blood pressure and body fat tests in front of the Van Nuys branch.
Monica Brian, a fitness specialist and team leader with PacifiCare, encouraged people to take a break from the holiday frenzy by exercising and relaxing.
``Even if they took a little time each day to walk and watch their diet - even though there's a lot of good food out there,'' Brian said. ``Moderation is the key.''
'Tis the season to be mailing, and the U.S. Postal Service says you had better do so soon if you want your packages and cards to arrive on time and safely. Here are some tips:
Stamped packages weighing more than a pound must be mailed in person; because of security precautions, they cannot be dropped into a mailbox.
Don't wrap boxes in string because they get caught in devices. Use strapping tape instead.
Skip the colorful wrapping paper; use heavy packing paper. Use sturdy cardboard boxes like shipping boxes, not gift boxes from department stores such as dress shirt boxes.
Never guess a ZIP code, and write the addresses legibly.
Write the return address inside the packages. In case the package comes apart, the clerks know where to return it.
Do not put batteries in gift toys. The toy could become activated during handling.
2 Photos, box
PHOTO (1) Monica Brian gives Felix Campos a seasonal stress checkup Monday at the Van Nuys Post Office.
(2) David Peace stands in a long line for help with his package.
Terri Thuente/Daily News