Christmas always began at our house with my mother's birthday, exactly a week before Christmas.

Mother disliked birthdays. An avowed pessimist ("Are you all right?"), she held the firm opinion that disasters waited all year to crash on her birthday.

But even she had to admit that having such a birth date was a distinction. Mother said that when she was in the first grade she thought Christmas vacation was in honor of her birthday. But once out of school, she lost that advantage.

She shared the curse of the Sagittarius. A mere mortal birthday in December receives short shrift in conjunction with the celebration of the great immortal one. While it's nice to celebrate your birthday amid tinsel, lights and partying, you can, I suppose, feel rather incidental to the general rejoicing. As a child, Mother's birthday and Christmas presents were all lumped into one. In her family that was not extraordinary -- her older sister was born on Christmas Day.

She solved that and many other problems (though she gained a few) by marrying my father instead of the local Coca-Cola heir. My father was given to generous and extravagant gestures. As the most sentimental of men, who reread "Pickwick Papers" the way some people reread the Bible, he always saw that Mother had separate but equal presents for both days.They were duly married in July, as far away from her birthday as possible. And I was conveniently born a suitable distance from Christmas, though in peril of Valentine's Day.

The problem in buying Mother presents was compounded because she was particular -- she always had very decided tastes and a distinct, though understated, style. She was born at the end of the Victorian era, which ended later in South Georgia than elsewhere. Her greatest approval was to say an object was "dainty," and that certainly described her. She was barely 5 foot 1 and trim to thin.

After her hair turned white -- I can remember it no other way -- she matched her colors to her blue eyes. She wore blue dresses, blue jewelry, especially earrings, painted her living room blue and even her Cadillac was blue. She loved the Cadillac, though it was an antique ("like me," she said, though she was only in her 50s) when she bought it.

My father had very good fortune in buying her presents -- except for a brief period when he asked the help of one of Mother's friends. Mother most firmly took back both the housecoat for her birthday and the table for Christmas that the friend had presumed to advise on.

Most of the presents her out-of-town friends sent her went into her cedar chest, a treasure hoard, along with her bridge party prizes. The chest was also a repository of wrapping paper, slightly used. Mother opened presents the way a surgeon opens a body. She'd roll up the ribbon, press the paper and use them all again. When she had to give presents, she'd shop her chest the way the more affluent shopped stores.

When I brought my husband-to-be home, and she discovered that his birthday was two days from hers and that he hated birthday parties, too, they instantly set up a mutual-comfort society. Meticulously, we always had separate cakes for both -- usually on the birthday eve rather than day, because who could wait an extra day to open presents?

She always said she didn't like parties because she didn't enjoy being fussed over or being the center of attention. Mother was not a jolly good fellow. She was never one to go to center stage. She liked to sit in the corner at parties and wait to be discovered.

Whether she liked it or not, I gave birthday parties for her from time to time -- with big ones on the grand anniversaries when she turned 70, 75 and 80. She endured them with great style and forebearance. By then she couldn't hear very well, but she'd developed over the years a serene dignity of Queen Mother proportions, an all-purpose smile and an enthusiastic but noncommittal "uh-huh."

Amazingly, she managed to keep all this grande-dame essential equipment after a heart attack and stroke left her little else. After a lifelong time of taking "just one thin slice," she ate three pieces of cake on her 83rd birthday.

This year, a month before her birthday, she managed to escape birthday parties forevermore. And now for us, Christmas has no beginning.