With no presents for her children and $3.20 in her checking account, it wasn't the merriest of Christmases for Crystal Wright Edwards.

Edwards, a teacher, blames her employer: the Philadelphia School District. The paychecks of hundreds - perhaps thousands - of district employees were late.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Edwards' check finally arrived. As she put it: "Angry can't even begin to describe how I feel."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the checks went out on time, with "no issue on our end." His villain? The postal service.

"It seems like there was a slowdown in the mail because of the volume of the holidays," he said.

About 85 percent of the district's 20,000 employees have their biweekly paychecks deposited directly into bank accounts, and their pay was on time, Gallard said. He urged all employees to sign up for direct deposit.

Edwards, who teaches at Drew Elementary in West Philadelphia, was laid off at the end of last school year and rehired before this one. She used to have direct deposit and has tried to sign up since being recalled, with no luck or returned phone calls, she said.

The no-show check at Christmas was terrible timing.

Edwards planned to throw her sixth graders a holiday party Dec. 23, then fly to Kentucky to celebrate her first anniversary with her husband, who is working there temporarily.

But her check, which normally comes on a Thursday, did not arrive on the 22d. It was not there on the 23d. She was stuck.

She had planned to buy her plane ticket just before leaving, but with no cash, that was not an option.

"I don't do the credit card thing," said Edwards, 38, a teacher for 15 years, three of them in Philadelphia. "They're not going to charge me interest for something I have cash for."

So her husband rented her a car, and Edwards made the 12-hour drive to Kentucky - but not in time for their anniversary.

"And needless to say, my children did not get any gifts," she said. "My husband didn't get an anniversary gift. I have $3.20 in my account, with my mortgage looming in the next couple of days."

Edwards began the long drive back to her home in Delaware on Tuesday - a few days early, so she could deal with the fallout of the cash fiasco.

She knows she will be OK. She will not lose her house, and she will buy presents now that the check has finally turned up. But she wonders about the others who had late checks.

"Those who don't have direct deposit are usually our staff who don't make that much money," Edwards said. "What happened to their Christmas? I have a spouse who was able to get me to see him. But what happens to those people who are really struggling? The district has put us through so much."

A recorded message on the district's payroll department phone number said that all paper checks were mailed by the bank Dec. 21.

"While checks were sent out according to schedule, we, too, are disappointed that particularly during this holiday season, several of our employees did not receive their checks," the message said. All checks should be received by Dec. 24, the message said.

"We deeply apologize again for this inconvenience and hope that your holiday season will not be minimized by this unexpected matter," it said.

Too late, said Edwards.

"Sorry isn't going to bring my anniversary back," she said. "It's not going to bring my Christmas back."

Gallard said that some employees had received their checks - the district was notified that they were cashed.

And for those still waiting?

If no check has arrived by Friday, Gallard said, they should contact the district. The checks will then be canceled and reissued.