So, there he was, that jolly old elf, rummaging through a mail truck at the Bethesda post office. Yes, a mail truck. This is the '90s, kids.

It was dusk when Santa began his appointed rounds. The lights in the suburban bushes and hedges twinkled gently, as carloads of families returned from afternoon jaunts to the shopping malls. A few recognized Santa driving that familiar red, white and blue U.S. Postal Service vehicle, honked their car horns and waved. Santa let out a warm "Ho! Ho! Ho!" and made a right.

He was off to deliver a special package to the Lopez clan. This was a Special Delivery Santa, you see. Part of the aptly named Santa Express. For four or five years now, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Santa has been hopping into a mail truck to deliver packages to homes in Bethesda.

The Bethesda postal workers "first saw it on TV," said Mitch "Santa" Reissman, "on the national news. They always have a blurb showing Santa doing something or other." Many letter carriers, including Reissman, dress up on Christmas Eve for their regular routes. (One of Santa's helpers was spotted later darting across the post office parking lot, clad head-to-toe in red, topped off with blinking lights on her red nightcap.) For the first couple of years, they had low-budget suits supplied by the postal service. But the Bethesda Santas now go in style with suits rented from a local magic shop: plush red velvet, full curly white beard and shiny black patent leather belt with a big brass buckle.

"It's a nice warm suit," Reissman said with a chuckle, "and I'm kind of glad I have all this padding, since it's getting cold out."

Reissman, 33, is a slender Santa with a tenor voice. He's single too. No Mrs. Santa at home baking cookies to fatten him up. Rejecting the traditional pillow method to fill out the roomy suit, Reissman strapped on a personal flotation device. "Santa is a river guide in the summer," he explained.

When he reached his destination, he parked his un-sleigh out of sight around the corner. He grabbed his trusty faded canvas mail bag and filled it with a handful of red-and-green mini-candy canes and a big Express Mail package. Adjusting his gold wire-rim glasses and rearranging his little round belly, he was off.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" he bellowed, a few octaves higher than your typical Santa as he rang the doorbell. There was a flurry of noise inside, and as the door was opened, a whoosh of yummy cooking smells filled the air.

"Oh, no!" shouted Tess Lopez, "We requested 6 o'clock! 6 o'clock! You're too early! The children aren't here!"

Sure enough, Santa. It was only 5:30.

The children, a passel of them at that, wouldn't be home for another 20 minutes. So, off Santa went, back to his cold, dark truck, and waited.

Twenty minutes later, a Volvo wagon and a sedan pulled up, stuffed with kids, nearly a dozen of them, most under age 6.

Once everyone was inside, Santa popped back out. He stopped under a street light to tighten his belt. The life jacket just wasn't enough padding. A man and a dog walked by, both casting a curious glance. But Santa paid them no never mind as he strode up to the home and let out a loud "Ho! Ho! Ho!" that, this time, was greeted by a handful of squeals.

"Oh my goodness!" shouted Lopez, as she opened the door. "Look who it is!"

Eight pairs of sweet eyes opened wide. No one said a word.

"Is everyone having a nice Christmas?" asked Santa.


"Nobody recognizes me, do they?" he laughed. "Well, I have a package for the children."

"Yeeeeah," a few sang.

As he passed out the candy canes, there was a burst of high-frequency chattering.

"There's a fireplace in here!" yelped one. There was a fire roaring in it.

"Yes, I know," said Santa. "That's why I came to the front door."

After a few more "Ho hos" and a promise for snow today, Santa bid adieu to the tykes and their parents. And as he disappeared into the night, he called out:

"Santa says, 'Remember to mail early next year!' "