Nearly the day before Christmas; plenty still stirring at post offices

It wasn't the night before Christmas, but it was cutting it pretty close Tuesday morning, as perennial procrastinators and those who just simply lost track of time hit the post offices to make sure their cards and packages got where they needed to be in time for the holiday.

The U.S. Postal Service expected to handle more than 800 million pieces of mail on Monday, its busiest mailing day of the year, but it wasn't necessarily the last day to put things in the mail to ensure they'll arrive by Christmas.

"If customers get their cards and packages to us by Tuesday, we'll get them delivered by Christmas," Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said in a statement.

As she put postage to paper in the lobby of the Westport Post Office on Post Road East, Westporter Renee Bartin was willing to take Donahoe at his word. She said she'd planned on getting her Christmas cards in the mail much sooner, but an unexpected death in the family "put things behind schedule." Asked if she was worried if they'd be delivered in time, Bartin said, with a smile, "I trust the postal service."

Meanwhile, Melanie Smith was filling out shipping label for the box perched on the counter. "I just couldn't find the right present to send out," she said, "so I just waited until I found the right thing."

The gift is for her aunt in Tennessee, she said. "She's on a diet and she wouldn't let me buy any clothes," Smith said, "so that left me struggling."

Smith said she'd be sending the package via priority mail and keeping her fingers crossed it will get there in time. But, if it doesn't, she said, it will just help to extend the holiday.

The postal service recommends Wednesday as the last day to ship packages using Express Mail. And post offices will be open on Christmas Eve, but most will have shortened retail lobby hours and will close at noon.

Rebecca Maula and her husband run the contract postal facility at the Fast Stop Food convenience store on Riverside Avenue in Westport. On Tuesday, she was putting stamps on a rather large stack of Christmas cards dropped off by a customer. "She was frantic," Maula said, so she offered to stamp the cards in between tending to customers.

Monday was busy, Maula said, and on Tuesday customers were coming in with about 3 to 6 packages each that needed to be shipped. "If they want it by Christmas, there's priority shipping," Maula said. "With most destinations we're coming across, parcel post doesn't make it."

Christmas cards, however, should arrive at their destinations by the holiday, she said.

For some people, Maula said the last-minute shipping and mailing is just a result of "the time crunch everyone feels under. But other people just always leave it until the last minute. I don't know why."