In the dark and cold of December days, Christmas cards are printed promises of better times and happier places . . . Where bountiful women and beautiful babies are attended by angels bringing gold and bejeweled crowns . . . Where tall and stately churches are deep in snow but promise warm blessings . . . Where wise men come to welcome the king with frankincense and myrrh.

The Born Again Christmas card trend this year is putting Christ Back into Christmas, succeeding such previous Christmas themes as the super graphic Christmas, the nostalgia Christmas and (last year) the affluent Christmas.

(The Christmas card people haven't actually come out and said President Carter is the reason for the popularity this year of religious Christmas cards, but they do think it may be a national mood. One Bible printer told a greeting card publisher his business is up 30 percent this year.)

The religious revival started riding the circuit last year when all the religious cards sold heavily, somewhat to the surprise of the card publishers. So it was in the cards that the manufacturers would place their faith in the heavens this year.

This information comes from a poll by the appropriately named Norman S. Halliday, executive vice president of the American Artists Group, Inc., confirms the trend. He's had a quantity of orders of religious cards with business imprints.Dash thinks this is a significant trend because "in the past, business organizations would have chosen a neutral greeting and image" without a religious significance. Dick Connor of the American Greetings Corp. expects more cards to be sent this year than last, despite the rise in the postage rate. Furthermore, he thinks the high-priced card is actually gaining in popularity. A high-priced card to him is one that costs more than $4.50 for a box of 10.

After religion, and nipping at the heels of the front runner, is the flora and fauna card: wild and homegrown plants, animals real and fantastic, and various combinations of the two. In third place, according to Halliday, but running hard, are cards celebrating specifics: jogging and other sports, cooking, and the "to my dear . . . (doctor, neighbor, lawyer, dad, daughter and so on)" cards.

Several card publishers report more vivid colors this year, with silver and gold - and surprisingly a lacquer black - as noteworthy. Embossed cards, white on white, seem especially sophisticated this year. The natural look, earthtones and such neutrals seem to be totally out, even though nature scenes are popular.

The most handsome of religious cards are from the old masters in editions from the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Somehow modern masters don't seem as well able to deal with miracles. The old paintings with their glittering halos and their stately mothers and children have a majesty you don't find in the newer versions.

"The Madonna and Child" by Domenico Ghirlandaio (circa 1470), for instance, is enough to soften the angriest agnostic. Against a gold-washed wood background, a queenly Mary bejeweled in flowing robes looks down lovingly at a cheerful child. Yet his eyes have a faraway look in them, as though he sees another world. His hand is raised in blessing. The card is from the National Gallery of Art.

In the "Virgin and Child with Four Angels" by Gerald David (Flemish, about 1460-1523), two angels are needed to bear the heavily jeweled crown and two others play the harp and the lyre. The Virgin in a rich red robe looks pensively at her baby who looks as though he might leap from her arms any minute. All are set against an archway to what looks like a promised land full of tall mountains and towering spires. The card is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but available locally from the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Renwick Gallery.

Most modern artists tend to make the Holy Family seem far too sickly sweet, too much family and not enough holy. They usually look as though they are on the way to the supermarket instead of to Bethlehem.

An exception are the cards by Ted Naos, the Washington artist who teaches architecture at the University of Maryland. He perhaps makes the most unusual of the religious Christmas cards. He die cuts heavy white paper into silhouettes of fanciful wisemen with magnificent crowns, of stylized father, mother and child with circles of light, of wonderful churches with domes and towers and turrets from far-off lands. A stylized Christmas star pattern is exclusive to the Museum of Modern Art and appears on the cover of the museum's brochure. Naos' non-religious efforts this year include the Smithsonian Castle, exclusive to you-know-who, and a Christmas village. Besides the museums, his cards also are sold at the Great Chase and Small Images Boutiques.

Another unusual cut-out card - or rather, book - is the "Christmas Angel Collection To Cut Out, Color & Fold," by Catherine Stock, published by Charles Scribner's Sons.

Religious cards, but not your standard Madonnas, are "The Map of the Holy Land" by Tilemannus Stella (Antwerp, 1573) and the "Teaching of the Indians" by Brazilian artist Candido Portinari. Both are $420 a package from the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress with its extensive print collection has all the themes that are big this year. There's chiaroscuro woodcut by Andrea Andreani, "Virgin, Child and Saints" (1585), and an art moderne cover illustration for Harper's Weekly by Maxfield Parrish (1895). Who would have thought art moderne went back to before the turn of the century? And a John Held Jr. illustration from Emily Post's "How To Behave - Though a Debutante." Harper's Bazaar (June 1928). It shows a man fast asleep at a table with a magnificent candelabra and fine art deco-patterned chairs.

Washingtonians may be tempted to dash down to the Library to buy the cards showing Washington scenes - the Sixth Street Wharf, the U.S. Patent Office, Georgetown and Washington from the Southeast. All, left over from other years, are reduced to $3 or $1.80 as compared to the $4.20 for new designs. Packages are of 12.

Some of the best angels are in flight at the Folger Shakespeare Library, as befits a place dedicated to the study of the middle ages, when angels were more common than they are now. Dante angels come to the card from the 1578 "La Divina Comedia," the Tudor Rose attended by angels from the 1598 "The French Chirugerye." A more modern version of this Heaven-bound creature is at area Hecht stores. Sales of Mylar Angels - silver cutouts that can be sent as cards - benefit the local workshops for handicapped persons, where they are made.

A card that looks like it's made of Russian lacquer - shiny black background, metallic green foliage, silvery bird and red berries - is one of the best printing jobs of the season, the work of Hallmark Cards. As usual, Hallmark is heavy into the sporting scene. Santa swings a combination of golf clubs, butterfly net and rake. A tent is bedecked with Christmas lights and socks. Unhappy reindeer pedal a bicycle built for five. And reindeer jog behind a perspiring Santa.

American Artists Group Inc., following the food fad, has a card by Kermit Adler showing a tree made of an espresso coffee maker, wire whisks, steamer, souffle mold, pasta press and, of course, a Cuisineart. Pandas, for some reason, seem to have multiplied this year, despite the seeming inability of the real ones at the National Zoo here to do likewise. American Artists' Sally Bradford has a version.

Crane has very stylish Christmas notes for those people who have more to say than can be accomodated on a regular Christmas card. Some have small trees on them, the better-looking ones are just bordered in green and red.

Fante cards have good graphics: a stylized candle and flame, a red tree bulb, an elephant with a tree. As usual Capari's cards have an exotic look - Turkish miniatures, Japanese bamboo. Garfinckel's own cards are handsome - a poinsetia made of the word Joy - and funny: "Margarita, Tom and Jerry, Jack Daniels, the Martinis . . . and the rest of the gang wish you Merry Christmas."

For the totally humbug types are Garfinckel's cards that quote great movie lines: "May the force be with you" - Obiwan Kenobe; "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore" - Howard Beale; and "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" - Dorothy. All are from the Stuart Harvest Collection.

Recycled Paper Products has comic cards: "You have just been issued one set of antlers, now go out and sleigh them." The Children's Art Collection offers pictures and comments from children: "If a horse wears horseshoes what do reindeers wear? Reincoats."

As usual, the UNICEF cards are a pleasant non-denominational, international expression of the universal desire to wish people well at this season of the year. They serve as well for Hanukah as for Christmas. Among the new cards are traditional paper cut-outs from China; a magnificent "Black Bird With Snow Covered Hills" by Georgia O'Keeffe; and "Winter Trees, II" by Bal Baswant of India. The sale of the cards benefits the United Nations Children's Fund. The cards are available at some 40 locations in the area. Call UNICEF 547-0204 to find out where.

Kwanza cards, celebrating the Afro-American festival, are available as usual at the Museum of African Art at the main desk.But the museum's new Boutique Africa has just opened at 320 A St. NE.

A wonderful rooster by Alejandro Obregon is one of four designs from the permanent art collection of the Organization of American States offered this year as Christmas cards. Greetings are in four languages. Profits go to provide assistance to natural disaster victims of the Americas.Cards are available by mail from the Pan American Development Foundation, Suite 622, 1625 I St. NW, Washington D.C. 20006.

And so it goes this Christmas, no matter what the picture or the story, Christmas cards are celebrations on paper with the same message, Merry Christmas to you.