Karen Harris normally has to perform quite the sales pitch to persuade customers to try the U.S. Postal Service's automated, do-it-yourself mailing center.
Yesterday, all it took was a glance at the line in the lobby, the towers of packages teetering in people's arms and the stacks of Christmas cards waiting to be stamped.
"They look down there and then they look at me, and they decide to give it a try," said Harris, lobby director of Baltimore's main post office on Fayette Street.
With Christmas bearing down on gift givers and card senders nationwide, Postal Service officials expected yesterday to be the busiest mailing day of the year with an anticipated 280 million postmarked cards and letters and millions of packages handled.
The Baltimore District -- with mail processing plants in Baltimore, Frederick, Easton and Cumberland -- was expected to handle 4 million envelopes and 500,000 packages yesterday -- more than twice the volume of a regular day.
All that mail made for some unavoidable bottlenecks, but the lines were not always as long or as slow-moving as people had feared.
"This is definitely late for me, but I feel like I'm in good company with all the other people here today," said Susan Jaszemski, 26, a nurse who lives in Washington Village. She was dropping off about 80 cards that she and her husband had addressed and signed the night before.
Although mail volume begins to crescendo just after Thanksgiving, post office employees say that the Monday before Christmas trumps all other busy days. It's more congested than the week of Valentine's Day. It's busier than the college application season. And the day's mail is even more voluminous than the haul April 15.
"On tax day, people maybe mail one or two pieces," said Bob Novak, a spokesman with the Baltimore postal district. "But for Christmas, they mail numerous cards and letters."
Terry Dolce was ahead of schedule -- by his standards.
The self-described "reforming procrastinator" spent more than $200 last Dec. 23 for overnight delivery of his gifts. His tab this year -- for shipping even more packages -- came to about $70.
"I learned my lesson," the 40-year-old Ellicott City resident said yesterday, with his second batch of boxes in hand and his eye on the much more modest rates for the Postal Service's priority mail. "The thing you have to realize is there's a limited window of opportunity here."
In exchange for waiting so long to ship gifts to family in Georgia and Texas, Annapolis resident Terry Conway expected to sweat for 20 minutes in a winding line at the city's Church Circle Post Office. Instead, she spent 10 minutes mailing packages and buying stamps.
"My procrastination paid off," Conway said, chuckling.
Mail processed yesterday included not only the packages and cards dropped off at post office counters but also every envelope dropped in a mailbox since Saturday's last collection.
"It's been really heavy," said Linda Conway, a mail handler at Baltimore's main post office who made hourly rounds in a jester-style Santa hat to the blue mailboxes outside and inside the building. "But it's fun. There's a lot of interesting wrapping. And it only lasts a couple weeks out of the year."
Customers and postal employees credited the automated mailing centers, like the one manned by Harris, with shortening lines.
Much like the computerized stations that allow airport passengers to print their boarding passes, the post office kiosks enable customers to weigh packages and print out the necessary postage stickers with a credit or debit card.
"That container is about half-full with mailing slips," said Richard W. Rudez, a manager at the Bel Air post office, said as he pointed to a trash can beside the automated machine. "Those people would [otherwise] have been in line."
Barbara Hudgins had one last Christmas card -- out of more than 50 -- to mail yesterday. Unsure how much postage was required for the overseas delivery to a student in Poland, the Eldersburg resident decided she had no option but to head to the post office.
When a postal employee working the line told her that she'd need another 43 cents of postage and that he could take the envelope and post it himself if she had exact change, Hudgins began fumbling through her purse for change.
But a man in line behind her beat her to it, happily handing over the coins and saving her a wait in line. He added, "Merry Christmas."
Sun staff writers Athima Chansanchai, Mary Gail Hare, Molly Knight, Josh Mitchell and William Wan contributed to this article.