TWO REINDEER are reading a newspaper with a headline "Deficit Dow." The antlers of two more are poking out of a garbage bin. One reindeer has become a street sweeper. Another has a false face. And one more is now working as a policeman.

What does it all mean? Well, it's an illustration for a Christmas card, and by the Christmas card theory of predictions for the year, it suggests hard times coming if Santa's reindeer have had to look for other work.

Some people look at the woolly worm or the groundhog to judge the severity of the winter. Some people count the rings on trees or the shape of their tea leaves. This prognosticator judges the year that was and the year that will be by Christmas cards. If the method lacks something in scientific exactness, it's still probably as reliable as most of the year-end predictions you'll read -- and a lot better illustrated.

If the Christmas cards are right, we'll be spending most of next year around the fire with the children, the cat and a mouse, except when we'll be going out to church.

Gas shortages have hit everywhere. One card shows Santa delivering cards while running. A threatened recession and the unstable political scene all seem to have suggested to card artists that this is the year to return to values not affected by a monetary yen. The hobby/sports cards are around all right. But the emphasis seems to be on the ones that don't require as much equipment.

Norman Halliday, who didn't change his name when he became executive vice president of the National Greeting Card Publishers Association, says everybody tells him that children, cats and dogs are the biggest topics this year for Christmas cards. And a casual look around certainly confirms that view. The ubiquitous b. Kilban cat-cards, for instance, are sold at Garfinckel's and the Chocolate Moose, among other places. That cat is shown on the hearth with his head on upside down looking at Santa coming cap first down the tree; feet and head in a punch bowl with the tail over the side like a handle; and atop the Christmas tree, in the process of toppling it over.

A much better-behaved cat by Art Seiden (different breed? different owner?) sits in the middle of a rain forest of hanging plants, looking angelic. oThe Library of Congress, one of the two or three greatest Christmas card publishers, has thoroughly domesticated animals, thanks to the inspiration of Beatrix Potter. She has taught that cat to cook a pie and the mouse to embroider a coat.

A mouse by Martin Heath of Sudbury, Mass. (available at Lord & Taylor's) has found a happy bed in an Adidas sneaker.

You might not recognize them as animals, but the National Gallery of Art has a set of "The Beasts of the Sea," six details from Henri Matisse's paper cutouts. The envelopes are coordinated. And a yearly favorite is carousel animals from the Index of American Design.

Audrey Christie for Recycled Paper Products Inc. (available at Lord & Taylor among other places) has a peaceful kingdom that includes a unicorn.

Renaissance Greeting Cards, a commune in Turners Fall, Mass. (sold at Garfinckel's) is into community spirited animals. A cat and mouse are shown making peace at Christmas with an exchange of presents. renaissance is bucking the trend by including a sentiment on their cards. The cat/rat one reads: . . . and in the magic of that holiday moment they realized how very colorless their lives would be without each other . . . May your holidays be filled with joy.

Martin Dash, president of American Artists Group, Inc., a big Christmas card publisher, says he's interested to see that "holiday greetings sent by businessmen for themselves or their corporations more frequently will carry a 'Christmas message' rather than what we call a neutral greeting [without] Christmas in its text. This to me means less emphasis on the holiday as secular and more recognition of it as a religious celebration."

Dash doesn't think the Pope's visit to the United States has been reflected so far in an increase in the sale of religious cards, judging by cards with the names imprinted (a good barometer since they have to be ordered earlier). But he doesn't rule out a spurt in religious card sales in box cards.

John Dinardo at Hallmark cards says his company has seen "the demand for religious cards grow steadily over the past two years."

As usual, the National Gallery of Art here and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have the largest madonna and child colletions, all courtesy of the old masters.

UNICEF cards, the choice for the internationally minded, this year as always, have a number of find children and mothers from all over, including an 18th-century pair by Utamaro of Japan, Maternal Caress, 1891, by Mary Cassatt and "Forever Free" by Sargent Johnson, showing a black woman with a skirt of children clapping hands. And there is also a rare Happy Chanukah card with gold Hebrew calligraphy.

Dash also sees a great happy-at-home trend. He puts it down to the gas shortage.One of his artists, Luther Travis (a textile designer in between Christmases), has drawn a farmhouse porch and dining room laden with harvest fruits. Hallmark counters with a series called "Christmas Heritage Collection," photographs of interiors shot in Williamsburg. In general, Hallmark finds a new interest in photographic cards. Victorian Christmas seems to be the brightest period this year. A Hallmark card by Steinberg shows his mustachioed man coming into a thoroughly victorian living room with splendiferous ornaments on the tree.

The most elaborate of all religious Christmas cards are those by Washington's own cardmaker: Ted Naos, an architect who teaches at Catholic University. His die-cut cards fold and stand in wonderful paper sculpture patterns. His "Little Town of Bethlehem," a splendid substitute for a creche, is available by mail from the Smithsonian Institution. The Naos "Castle" card in the image of the original Smithsonian building also is available in the museum shops. His "Cathedral" is exclusive for the Museum of Modern Art, which always has the most arty cards. His snowflake card is only for the Corcoran Gallery of Art. His cutouts include a nativity scene. The newest direction for his cards are the remarkable "Santa's Toys" and "Faces." Cards and the "Little Town of Bethlehem" by Naos also are sold at Small Images and the Written Word in Georgetown, and Bretano's, Chevy Chase.

This season Naos has graduated to super cards -- a stage set for the "Nutcracker" made in the manner of his cards. The ballet will be presented holiday week at Constitution Hall.

There are cards for people who like their cards to be different from the trendy ones.

For the romantic/scientific mind, a rare combination: the Library of Congress's card showing Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell kissing through a tetrahedral kite. It may be the greatest card of the season.

Garfinckel's Cathy Martens works hard at her Christmas cards. This year, she has commissioned Washington cards by Barbara Noel Deiso of Davidsonville, Md. Her assistant, Dorethe Whitehad, swears they didn't know Noel was Deiso's middle name until the cards were delivered. One is a tree oramented with Washington monuments. Another is a composite street scene in Georgetown.

The Folger Library has the most festive, with their holly elf from "Flowers in Shakespeare's Garden," and various scenes of eating and drinking. The Walters Art Gallery has a fine 1894 art nouveau card, Balades dans Paris.

The Textile Museum's cards are taken from 17th and 18th century prayer rugs from Anatolia, and a 19th century batik.

The Smithsonian cards include a Diplodocus, designed by John Faulkner -- a sort of a dinosaur with a Santa Claus hat. For the transportation freak there's a streetcar card, also by Faulkner, showing the Capital Traction Company car run by Santa Claus with reindeer passengers.

Whatever way you say it, the thought is the same: Happy holidays to all. CAPTION: Picture, Library of Congress; Illustration 1, no caption, By Ted Noas; Illustration 2, no caption, By Sandra Boynton -- Recycled Paper Products, Inc.; Illustration 3, no caption, By Elaine Siegel -- UNICEF; Illustration 4, no caption, By Barbara Noel Deiso; Illustration 5, Copyright (c) 1978, b. Kilban; Illustration 6, no caption, By Graham Rust -- American Artists Group