CHRISTMAS: Snow, bells jingling behind a set of matched Clydesdales as they march majestically between the snowdrifts, fires roaring beside pots of hot mulled wine, children caroling as the snow settles gently on their stocking caps, blue spruce trees ablaze with twinkling electric lights. Good friends, good times, good thoughts.

But why not a contrast this Christmas? Sand, the sweet smell of tropical blooms drifting past as you ride a cart pulled by a single burro, cool gin and tonics sipped beside a crashing ocean, children caroling as a Caribbean breeze ruffles the hair on their heads, palm trees ablaze with twinkling electric lights. And good friends, good times, good thoughts.

Christmas offers a unique opportunity for a traveler to experience the customs of another country, and a friendship often denied at other times of the year. As a Yuletide visitor you will sometimes find that local residents feel sorry for you -- a poor waif far from home and family during the most joyous of seasons. That can be to your advantage as doors open, people greet you warmly and perhaps you are invited for Christmas dinner with total strangers who become dear friends by the third or fourth toast to St. Nicholas. It is, perhaps, the best time to travel throughout the world, if you can ignore the holiday crush.

Here is a sampling of a few of the special places to spend Christmas this year (if you're lucky enough to find there's still room at the inn -- and there's still room at the inn -- and there's always next year).

You sleep in a four-poster bed, beneath a roof that has weathered more than 400 years of history. It has, perhaps, in this bedroom that the Lord and Protector, Oliver Cromwell, slept the night before his epic Battle of Worcester with Charles II. Or here that Charles I stayed and drank deeply of the inn's wine. Your bed has a name carved into its oaken headboard -- John Trevis, innkeeper -- as well as a date: 1620, the year the Mayflower sailed for the New World.

This is the Lyon Arms in Broadway, in the heart of the Cotswolds, perhaps the most beautiful section of England. The Lygon, one of the most honored hotels in Britian, is hosting a special Christmas celebration this year, and you're invited. The party will cost you about $600, but hang the cost, this is a holiday!

On Christmas Eve, after the welcoming cocktail party, you return to your room, change for dinner (black tie, of course), have dinner in the Great Hall and join in the carol-singing by candlelight. After midnight services in Broadway churches you return for mince pie and hot punch served in the candle-lit front hall of the ancient inn. The next morning, Christmas Day, you begin the festive season at an 11 a.m. toasting of two grand cru clarets, followed by a Christmas luncheon with its traditional Yuletide quiz. At 3 you will watch the Queen'Christmas message. At 4 a festive tea, including Christmas cake and Yule log. That evening you will have a gala dinner (black tie).

On Dec. 26, the fox hunters will meet at the nearby Swan Hotel in the traditional Boxing Day ritual. After you see the scarlet-garbed hunters off, you return to the Lyon for a glass of champagne or a black velvet, followed by lunch, afternoon tea and a candlelight dinner. And that night, as you drift off to sleep and the fire softly dies in the centuries-old fireplace in your suite, your dreams are of a perfect Christmas in the ancient tradition.

You walk along the murmuring river while the soft breezes of a South Texas December day ripple the water, and a song faintly catches your ear. As you stand on the arched bridge crossing the river, its banks illuminated by clusters of candles covered by paper sacks, the song becomes louder, then louder still. Soon a barge rounds the bend and you see them: a group of youngsters in holiday clothing, singing carols. You watch, and listen, as the barge floats under the bridge and slowly disappears down the river, the faces of the carolers glowing in the reflected candlelight.

San Antonio is a special piece of America at Christmas. This city, the center of Mexican-American pride in Texas, celebrates Christmas in its own happy individualistic way.

You can go to a mariachi mass at Mission San Jose, a sister to the Alamo, and perhaps the best perserved of the major Texas missions. Here, following the service, you will be entertained with traditional Christmas songs sung by the choir performers, as the mariachis serenade with guitars and trumpets. Here, too, the ancient Christmas Pagent, "Los Pastores" is presented on Dec. 27 and 28.

In the homes of San Antonio, and in the hotels as well, the breaking of the pinatas on Christmas Eve takes place as the paper-mache creations -- elephants and bullfighters, Christmas trees and huge, jolly Santas, pigs and snowmen -- are smashed and the goodies inside rain down upon the eager hands and delighted smiles of San Antonio's children.

Traditional tamale-making takes place Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day one looks forward to finishing dinner to eat the holiday delicacy bunuelos, a thin pastry fried to a light, flakey crust and sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon. Bueno!

For a Christmas with a Spanish flavor, San Antonio is the place to go this year. The local hotels have special Christmas rates to make your stay even more enjoyable.

It's not 34th Street, but it is a miracle: an affordable Christmas vacation in New York. One of the city's grandest hotels, the Waldorf-Astoria, is offering a special Christmas rate from Dec. 19 through Jan. 12 of $32.60 per day per person (without meals), and children are free.

You can walk along Fifth Avenue, its trees covered with winkling white lights; strap on skates to swirl along the ice in the Rockefeller Center rink; dash through F.A.O. Schwarz, the world's greatest toy store, with or without children; visit St. Patrick's Cathedral for Christmas services; then return to the Waldorf, with its Park Avenue lobby, a giant garden of poinsettias and Christmas trees. On display is the world's largest gingerbread house, the creation of Waldorf pastry chef Willy Ritz. It has candy stained-glass windows and is covered with white sugar, gumdrops and lollipops.

Walk up the red carpet placed on the sidewalk on Park Avenue (a Waldorf Christmas tradition), settle into your room, have a bit of champagne, walk downstairs to Peacock Alley, home of Cole Porter's own piano, and have a memorable Christmas dinner.

From the moment the Christmas-tree ship arrives, usually in mid-December, the people of Bermuda prepare for Christmas. Oh, they still wear their Bermuda shorts, and they still ride their mopeds to work and they still play tennis. But they also begin to make cassava pie, the traditional Christmas dish, and they decorate their scrawny pine trees imported from Nova Scotia, and they prepare their Christmas goose and dig out their year-old, rum-soaked Christmas pudding for desert.

Bermuda, covered with trees (yes, trees) of poinsettias blooming alongside hibiscus and oleander, offers the traditions of England -- Bermuda is still a colony -- with the special lilt of the islands. It is cool enough this time of year in Bermuda that cedar fires will be burning in most homes in the evenings, wrapping the land in the sweet smell of the wood as you walk the twisting pathways of the island. Church services are held, parties are numerous and most hotels have festive Christmas parties for guests. From the huge Southhampton Princess to the cottage colonies like Lantana, per person. Air fair is extra.

Germany, the land that gave us the Christmas tree, has a variety of packages available for the visitor at Christmas, most including the traditional Christmas Eve meal of carp prepared in beer and the Christmas Day roast goose stuffed with minced veal (in southern Germany), with chestnuts (in eastern and northern Germany), with apples (in Rhineland and Westphalia), with sausage meat (in Bavaria), or with a goose liver-and-grape combination (in the Mecklenburg region). However you stuff your goose, you will find a Christmas in Germany to be hearty, happy and traditional, from the lighting of the Advent wreath to the huge Christmas markets in the cities, where you walk through the swirling snow as you drink hot mulled wine spiced with cinnamon and browse through the hundreds of stalls. A typical Christmas package if offered by the Schlosshotel Arolsen, a baroque castle hotel west of Kassel, with its "Princely Christmas," Dec. 21-28. The week includes a party in the wintry woods, a walking party to the Twiste Dam, a medieval meal in the castle's 250-year-old vaults, a sightseeing tour of the castle, a midnight walk with flares to church and a Christmas buffet dinner. Details from the German National Tourist Office or your travel agent.

There are a multitude of Christmas cruises available, and a few of them may still have space when you read this. Examples are Paquet Cruise Line's 15-day Caribbean cruise to the Virgin Islands, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Martinique and Venezuela ($1,785 to $3,285) and Sitmar's cruise of the Fairwind that goes from Acapulco to Fort Lauderdale ($2,070). Check with your travel agent for Christmas vacations afloat, and if you can't get a stateroom this year you may want to plan on a holiday afloat in 1981. in 1981. =q0+=q0-*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?m!=q=q0,=q0.*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?m?=q=q0-oooo*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?*$1ked.!%?;?=qper person. Air fair is extra.

Germany, the land that gave us the Christmas tree, has a variety of packages available for the visitor at Christmas, most including the traditional Christmas Eve meal of carp prepared in beer and the Christmas Day roast goose stuffed with minced veal (in southern Germany), with chestnuts (in eastern and northern Germany), with apples (in Rhineland and Westphalia), with sausage meat (in Bavaria), or with a goose liver-and-grape combination (in the Mecklenburg region). However you stuff your goose, you will find a Christmas in Germany to be hearty, happy and traditional, from the lighting of the Advent wreath to the huge Christmas markets in the cities, where you walk through the swirling snow as you drink hot mulled wine spiced with cinnamon and browse through the hundreds of stalls. A typical Christmas package if offered by the Schlosshotel Arolsen, a baroque castle hotel west of Kassel, with its "Princely Christmas," Dec. 21-28. The week includes a party in the wintry woods, a walking party to the Twiste Dam, a medieval meal in the castle's 250-year-old vaults, a sightseeing tour of the castle, a midnight walk with flares to church and a Christmas buffet dinner. Details from the German National Tourist Office or your travel agent.

There are a multitude of Christmas cruises available, and a few of them may still have space when you read this. Examples are Paquet Cruise Line's 15-day Caribbean cruise to the Virgin Islands, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Martinique and Venezuela ($1,785 to $3,285) and Sitmar's cruise of the Fairwind that goes from Acapulco to Fort Lauderdale ($2,070). Check with your travel agent for Christmas vacations afloat, and if you can't get a stateroom this year you may want to plan on a holiday afloat in 1981.