Santa Claus will work the phones here next week to learn what some 1,600 young Charles County residents want for Christmas. And while he's at it, he'll let them know what kind of behavior he expects in return.

It's actually 42 Kriss Kringles, all volunteers on the "Santa Hotline" the county government is sponsoring Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Many of the volunteers, who have been briefed by parents about the desires and behavioral deficits of their elementary school-age children, worked on the first hot line last year.

"My own kids got such a big kick when I called them pretending I was Santa a few years back, that I decided the county could do something like this," said parks and recreation director Melvin Bridgett.

The department is going ahead with this year's hot line despite a setback of its own -- the destructive fire last month at the recreation headquarters.

Parents have been sending in forms saying when they want their children to get a call, what their children want and what behavior needs improvement. "Santa" sends back letters to the children telling them expect a call at a specific time, "atmospheric conditions permitting."

"We have to be deadly serious," said one volunteer from last year. "Sometimes that's incredibly difficult, because the things kids come up with are hysterical."

" 'Stop smacking your grandma around' was the strangest reminder we had to relay last year," said Phyllis Pitts, Santa Hotline coordinator.

Other ones were "please tell her to sleep in her bed. She doesn't like her new bed and has been sleeping on the floor." Eat your vegetables. Do good in school. Stop beating on your brother (or sister). Throw away your pacifier or "stop carrying around your blankie" are other common requests, Pitts said.

For insurance salesman Gordon O'Neil, 59, who has six children, the "whole experience was just beautiful. It made me cry. Without any hesitation they told me they loved me. The children are open and uncynical. We haven't corrupted them yet."

"One child wanted to know where my sled was parked," said volunteer Walt Wilt, a retired state trooper. "I told him it was double parked and I had to go move it or get a ticket." Volunteers say the kids get so involved in the conversations that they have to think of ways to end the calls.

"It's time to feed Rudolph" is one popular excuse most kids understand, operators said.

"He-Man" toys, Mickey Mouse phones and Cabbage Patch and Michael Jackson dolls are frequent requests this year, along with the ubiquitous "transformer toys," Redskins uniforms and helmets, race tracks, unicorn earrings, Alvin Chipmunk puppets and Big Foot trucks, hot line sponsors said.

"Your throat gets hoarse but we play carols and ring bells and try to create a real workshop atmosphere in the background," Pitts said.

Kids who get a phone call from Santa are "breathless," said Herb Howard, 58, who works at the Naval Ordnance Station in Indian Head. "Everything just spills out. They try to describe exactly what type of toy they want."

"They are absolutely awestruck that Santa is on the line for them," said John Mitchell, an electrician with the Government Printing Office. "I got one little fella about 4 or 5 who just didn't believe. I wish I could've seen his face after I told him his brother's name and what he wanted. He quickly became a believer, and just started rattling away."

"Of course, I'm doing it again. I wouldn't miss it for the world," Mitchell said.