We present to you these books of Christmas: They glow with color and travel the world to seek out beauty. We have done our best with mere words to lay out a sumptuous sampler of this year's offerings: Books on gardens and flowers, on cities, birds, paintings, Vikings, Africa, glass, photography -- the list could go on and on. We hope these elegant picture books, together with our reminders of what this year has offered in history, fiction, public affairs, biography, science, poetry, mysteries, science fiction, and children's books, will solve all gift-giving problems and be fun to read as well. Some Washington Post staffers offer their own Christmas wish-lists on pages four and five in case Santa Claus is among our fans. Happy Christmas to you, the readers of books and of Book World. -- Brigitte Weeks THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, by Howard Hibbard (Harper & Row, $50). The Met, like the Louvre, possesses wonderful examples of art of nearly every kind and period. Hibbard, chairman of Columbia's art history department, emphasizes the growth of the museum's various collections by recounting major bequests and acquisitions. The result is a thick book, with 1,050 illustrations (608 in color), that is both a general survey of world art and a history of this formidable institution. CRANCHE: A Family of Master Painters, by Werner Schade; translated by Helen Sebba (Putnam, $50). This exceptionally well-designed book -- the type font and page layouts are reminiscent of the Golden Cockerel Press -- is the result of some 20 years devoted to the study of Lucas Cranach, his sons and grandson. (The Germans still know what scholarship is all about.) Cranach, court painter in Saxony during the Reformation, depicted Luther and German princes, created altarpieces, practiced engraving, woodcut and book decoration. The plates, both color and black and white, are excellent; moreover, marginal notes refer the reader of the commentary to the appropriate illustratioins. THE OIL SKETCHES OF PETER PAUL RUBENS: A Critical Catalogue, by Julius S. Held (Princeton, two volumes, $125). Hardly a mere art book, this definitive study would be a much-appreciated gift for a graduate student in art history, especially one interested in Flemish or baroque art. Rubens, who didn't just paint overfed nudes, made rapid oil sketches for his paintings; these preliminary states possess a briskness and vigor that the richer, more layered finished products lack. Held, professor emeritus at Columbia, thoroughly describes the available sketches (mostly of classical and Biblical scenes), giving dimensions and technical details, discussing sources and influences, indicating present owners. Volume I contains the text (698 large pages); volume II gathers over 500 plates, nearly all of them full-page. ARCIMBOLDO, text by Roland Barthes; critical essay by Achille Bonito Oliva (Ricci/Rizzoli, $150).Slipcased, bound in silk with gold stamping, its pages a robin's egg blue, using Fabriano mould-made paper (not handmade paper, despite the colophon), this book is limited to 3,000 numbered copies, signed by the publisher, Franco Maria Ricci. Its subject, Arcimboldo, is one of the oddest artists of the Mannerist period, a painter who created his portraits by combining fruit, flowers or even books into the semblance of a face. The effects are thoroughly grotesque, though sometimes charmingly so, as when he composes a series of heads based on the seasons, using flora and fauna appropriate to each. To some degree it is possible to view these bizarre combinatory works as prefigurations of surrealism or pop art. The late culture critic Roland Barthes, in his wide-ranging and exciting way, contributes a long meditation on Arcimboldo's art. THE MAPPING OF AMERICA by Seymour I. Schwartz and Ralph E. Ehrenberg (Abrams, $60). Until recently maps were only thought of as paper tools, the means to get you from point A to point B. But, as many have discovered, they are also objects of beauty and sources of historical understanding. Schwartz, a map collector, and Ehrenberg, assistant chief of the Library of Congress' Geography and Map Division, blend their expertise in this history of the mapping of the new world from 1500 to the present. A hefty oblong volume, the text here is as important as the illustrations. AMERICAN FOLK PAINTERS OF THREE CENTURIES, edited by Jean Lipman and Tom Armstrong (Hudson Hills Press, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art/distributed by Simon and Schuster, $35). This compendium gathers essays, by recognized authorities, on some three dozen of the best known American folk painters, among them the much admired Ammi Phillips, only "discovered" in the 1960s. Folk art, as the color reproductions make clear, was characterized by a lack of perspective, a high degree of frontality in the portraiture, flat, crowded landscapes, and an unsophisticated romanticism. Still, it is for just three reasons that these paintings, like color lithographs, strike jaded moderns as powerful and authentic expressions of 19th-century America. AMERICAN MASTERPIECES FROM THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, by John Wilmerding (Hudson Hills Press/distributed by Simon and Schuster, $28.50). Wilmerding, curator of American art at the National Gallery, offers brief essays on and full-page color reproductions of selected American highlightss from the museum. A pleasant book, but a Sunday afternoon at the Gallery is cheaper and you can look at the real paintings. MARY CASSATT: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Graphic Works, by Adelyne Dohme Breeskin (Smithsonian Institution Press, $40). Admirers of Cassatt, who should be legion, will want to own or know the whereabouts of the nearest copy of this book. It describes her graphic techniques -- drypoint, acquatint, etching and lithography -- and reproduces, in black and white or color, all her prints, along with relevant technical data and the names of present owners. EDWARD HOPPER: The Art and the Artist, by Gail Levin (Norton, $29.95). Levin, who is curator of the Hopper collection at the Whitney Museum, surveys the life and work of the echt American painter and graphic artist. Not a sumptuous coffee table book, Levin's study is a serious introduction to Hopper's work, making clear that the artist was not just a kind of "Our Town" painter of lighthouses and lonely women leaning out of windows. Still, no other American has so well captured the aching solitude of late night gas stations, cafes and the impersonal big city. THE SWEET GRASS LIVES ON: Fifty Contemporary North American Indian Artists, by Jamake Highwater (Lippincott & Crowell, $35). Native Americans have moved a long way from Navajo rugs and silver jewelry. The art represented here ranges from the highly stylized and totemic to the narrowly realistic, but certain elements do recur -- a reverence for nature, animal imagery, and an elegiac longing for a vanishing way of life.