Thanksgiving fell rather late this year, and one of the casualties was Donna Fitzgerald's patience.

For as long as Donna can remember, she has taken her kids to see Santa Claus at a suburban shopping mall near the family home in Alexandria. As soon as the kids have finished telling Santa how wonderful they've been all year, the family usually wanders around the mall and drops a few bucks on Christmas presents. Which, from the point of view of the shopping center, is the whole reason for having a Santa there in the first place.

In years past, the shopping centers have had the good grace to keep Santa hidden at the North Pole until the day after Turkey Day. This year, however, Donna was outraged to discover Saint Nick holding court at Springfield Mall on Nov. 23 -- five full days before Thanksgiving.

Profiteering? Gross commercialism? Insensitivity to tradition? Donna smelled all these and more.

She also worried that if she didn't blow the whistle on Early Santaism, the shopping centers would start trying to outdo each other by bringing Santa to town earlier than the competition. We might even start seeing reindeer on the Beltway in July, Donna feared.

Good news, my agitated friend. Santa's early '85 arrival does indeed appear to be a quirk of the calendar, not a forerunner of earlier and earlier arrivals in years to come.

"It's a tradition here that Santa arrives the day after Thanksgiving," said Peggy Burkard, marketing director at Springfield Mall. "The main reason I decided to bring him early this year was that the season was essentially cut short by a week by the lateness of Thanksgiving ."

Springfield's Santa was not even the area's earliest, Donna. Bearded guys in red snowsuits took up residence at Mazza Gallerie and White Flint Mall on the 22nd.

On the other hand -- and on the other end of the calendar -- no Santa waited until the usual Friday-after-the-holiday to hit town. The latest-arriving Santa was the one belonging to Tysons Corner. He showed up on the 26th. And even that arrival date was nothing to be alarmed about, because it was the continuation of a tradition, not the interruption of one.

"We always have it Santa's arrival during the week before Thanksgiving -- that's gotten to be a tradition at Tysons -- because it allows the kids to avoid the post-Thanksgiving rush of shoppers," said Andrea Spessard, assistant marketing director there.

So, as best I can tell, Donna, there's no conspiracy and no outrage. However, there's not much hope of things getting much better very soon, either.

Thanksgiving '86 falls on Nov. 27, I'm afraid. In '87, it falls on the 26th.

If anybody asks me to define "long shot," my answer from now on is going to be, "Ellen Segal of Falls Church."

Ellen was crossing K Street at 18th the other evening when one of her shoes snagged on something or other. She pitched forward, hard, right onto her face, in the middle of the intersection.

Shaken, battered, bruised and bleeding, Ellen managed to struggle to her feet. Several passers-by picked her up, dusted her off and hustled her out of the roadway. Noticing her injuries, one anonymous soul said, "You'd better go to the hospital." And into the pocket of her blazer he shoved a $5 bill, to cover cab fare. He didn't ask for a receipt, a name, an address -- or an eventual refund.

That was Long Shot Number One. Long Shot Two took place minutes later, when a cabdriver dropped Ellen at the emergency room entrance of George Washington University Hospital -- and refused to charge her, given the shape she was in.

"There really are nice people around," says Ellen. Even nicer, they sometimes come through when they're needed most.

That hiss you just heard was Pete Rufe of Waynesboro, Va., puncturing a balloon that has long needed it.

"Whyizzit journalists always refer to the nether regions of Gaul as 'The South of France?' Why not 'Southern France?' ," Pete wants to know.

By the same reasoning, Pete notes, we ought to refer to Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax as "The North of Virginia."

The ear cringes at the thought, Pete. I'm in your camp, firmly.

You usually hear "The South of France" from some guy who has just been given a wine guidebook by his brother-in-law and suddenly fancies himself a sophisticate. But "Southern France" was good enough for this guy before the wine guide. Why not after?

I suspect "The South of France" took hold in this country because it's a more literal translation of "Le Sud de France," which is how the natives say it. Still, that's no excuse. "The South of France" is pomposity, plain and simple. CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL

Thanksgiving had special meaning for Bernice Beard of Hyattsville. It was her 65th birthday, and her family unfurled the red carpet for her -- food, best wishes and lots and lots of gifts.

One of the latter was $45 in cash, which Bernice could have blown on a new pair of galoshes, a box of chocolate-covered ants or just about anything for herself.

Instead, she thought of needy kids at the hospital that helps them get healthy, all year long.

"With the presenters' consent," Bernice writes, "I would like to share these blessings with the children. Forty-five dollars plus my own 20 I pray will help a little."

More than a little, kind lady. Happy birthday -- and many thanks.

Most people are plenty strapped for dough at this time of year. So strapped that if they found $43 in a parking lot, their instinct to return the money might not prevail over their instinct to use the money to finish their Christmas shopping.

But it went just the other way for a Bethesda woman who asks that her name be withheld.

One evening in late October, she was zooming to meet her boss for dinner at a restaurant in Friendship Heights. "In my rush to get there," the woman writes, "I dropped my change purse with $43 in the parking lot.

"In the restaurant, I wondered about the change purse but paid with a credit card, deciding I must have left the change purse in another handbag.

"On my car, however, I found a note from Clare Winslow (of Northwest), stating she had found some money and leaving her number. When I called her, she offered to leave the change purse with her mother, Susan Winslow," who works at the Woodward & Lothrop branch right beside the parking lot where the money was found. The next day, our lucky lady reclaimed her purse, "all contents intact."

"The occurrence was a real month-brightener for me," the woman writes, "so much so that I'd like to pass on the kindness to others." Deeper in the same envelope was a check for $43 -- made out to Children's Hospital.

Would that all near-messes ended so happily. Thanks to a pair of Winslows, and to a woman whose heart is in the right place, even if her purse wasn't always.