Washington Cathedral's Christmas Joy program this year, sung as usual by both the Cathedral Choral Society, under Paul Callaway's direction, and the Cathedral Choir of men and boys under Richard Dirksen had a higher measure of beauty than such programs sometimes bring.

Familiar music by Holst, Warlock, Hoiby and Britten came from the top drawer of this season's great repertoire. Along with these were outstanding anthems by H.C. Stewart and David Koehring and an exciting, off-beat carol by William Mathias.

Ottorino Respighi's "Laud to the Nativity" was given the place of honor, as it will be again next week in the Paul Hill Chorale's three-night Christmas stand at the Kennedy Center. Its arresting scoring for six woodwinds plus four-hand piano is precisely what Respighi who was a master of instrumental color, wanted in order to suggest the pastoral feeling common to Italian music describing the Nativity.

If it more pleasant than strong, it is, particularly when sung as effectively as it was on Saturday afternoon -- the program was repeated yesterday -- an attractive ornament at this time of year. Soprano Martha Randall, mezzo Ellen Lang and tenor Douglas Robinson added notably to the effect of the music.

Perhaps the greatest impact of the program came from the beauty of the music of the choir as it was heard from the west balcony, the choirs in procession, accompanied by handbells, and the large chorus under Paul Callaway in the crossing, backed by Reilly Lewis expert control of the organ. The atmosphere inside the Cathedral suggested peace even if the world outside seemed to deny it.