If you are one of the millions of Americans who like to thank their local letter carrier (there are 180,213 mailmen and 15,694 mailwomen at last count) with a little gift at Christmas time, make it easy on your favorite courier by sticking to something of nominal value rather than giving two Japanese watches or a Cadillac or fur coat.

Christmas presents from taxpayers to feds are always a problem because technically they are a no-no, yet Uncle Sam doesn't want to appear to be a snarling Scrooge during this joyous season.

According to the Government's Code of Ethics (which if read at bedtime will stun even the most hyperactive tyke into deep sleep), federal workers are not supposed to accept any gift from anybody they serve or do business with.

No matter what the polls say about the way Americans feel about their government or faceless bureaucrats, the fact is that a lot of people like their letter carriers who bring good news and bad, and checks, and who perform a lot of services not in their job descriptions -- like checking on older patrons who live alone and saving hundreds of lives a year in the process.

So you like the mail carrier, or postal clerk, the kindly claims expert at the Social Security Administration, or the IRS taxpayer assistant who helps rather than confuses or scares you. So what do you do at Christmas?

Government lawyers, postal officials and union leaders don't like to talk about the gift "problem" on the record. Off the record, this is what they say:

Postal Official: "We don't want to get into the business of regulating people's personal lives or telling a customer that he can't thank the letter carrier. The rules say no gifts, and certainly any kind of pressure from one of our people for a gift is a no-no. We can't say it on the record but we hope people use common sense, that they keep it low-key and don't put the carrier in an embarrassing position or give the appearance that anything improper is going on."

Union Official: "You can't quote me on this. We don't want any of our members hurt, and we wouldn't stand for any member or any federal employe putting the arm on people, or hinting that a tip is necessary. But what the hell, people have to exhibit some horse sense in a thing like this. What can I say?"

If you plan to give a civil servant a little stocking stuffer, remember it is a little like jay-walking. You have to be very careful or somebody could get hurt.