SOME PEOPLE tell the future with tarot cards, Christmas cards are more reliable. Three billion cards will go out this year, each one a vote for attitudes to come. Reading the cards this year shows the country is back to the fundamentals: angels, madonnas, trees, yesteryear -- good conservative themes.

The Republicans have brought us elephants for Christmas. At least two elephant cards are available at Garfinckel's and other places. One shows three elephants singing "Noel." On another, an elephant wearing a cap and carrying a wreath says, "I never forget . . . Happy Halloween."

One of the biggest specific motifs in cards this year seems to be stained glass, and subjects suitable for immortalizing in lead and glass. One of the two Christmas postage stamps this year is from the Washington Cathedral's "Madonna and Child," a stained-glass window by Walter Tower. (A card with the same picture is available here from the Washington Cathedral's crypt shop.)

A great stained-glass dome on a trendy purple background is Hallmark's entry in the stained-glass-window category.

Washington Cathedral cards are big on angels. One by Fra Giovanni Angelico (1387-1455) shows a pair of very beautiful, fashionably dressed Florentine lady angels with golden halos. Three German angels by Meister Des Hauysbuches (1460-1490) are much more casually dressed.

Victorian angels with flowers, Santa Clauses and a few children (from old Christmas cards) are arranged to form a snowflake on a Hallmark card.

UNICEF has a glittery angel this year by Rolf Harder, printed on shining silver foil paper. The die-cut angel pops out to make a decoration.

The National Gallery, which doesn't have to send out for angels or madonnas and children, has its usual handsome collection this year. "Madonna Enthroned With Saints and Angels" (1390-1396) by Agnolo Gaddi is beautiful despite it stern saints, midget angels, bored-looking baby and long-suffering madonna. The card opens to form a triptych.

The "Madonna of the Stars" by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) on a National Gallery card shows much more believable-looking baby angels and the madonna and child they're watching over. The painting is very moving. The madonna looks concerned about the baby's star, which seems to look into his future, but she also seems very pleased and loving. The cherubs are having a nice time on the job.

The Social Center (2810 Dorr Ave., Fairfax, Va. 22031), a psychiatric rehabilitation center serving mentally ill adults, has a fine brown and gold angel. The members silkscreen, fold and package the cards.

The Folger Library cards include one with Liturgical Music for Christmas Eve from the "Manual According to the Use of Salisbury," Antwerp (1523), and "Angels From La Divina Comedia" by Dante Alighieri. a

The Metropolitan Museum has a great 1910 Secession-style card from the Wiener Werkstatte showing an angel flying in with a Christmas tree for an unsuspecting village. The Wee People

There's an unusual number of wee creatures and magic men of one sort or another in this year's card selections.

The only thing that could be counted suspect is Santa's red suit, and that's all right because red is Nancy Reagan's favorite color except in politics.

Ten acrobatic elves shape themselves to shadow-write "Christmas" on a Hallmark card.

Strong competition from the 1980 variety of gnomes comes from Decorating the Christmas Tree" from the 1893 "The Brownies at Home" by Palmer Cox -- on a Library of Congress card. Despite what we've all heard about brownies, they don't seem to be having too easy a time of it. One top-hatted brownie is spilling the candy from his corucopia. The ladder is falling apart. A Chinese brownie has lost his hat and is in imminent peril of losing his pigtail. The brownies on the trees and on top of the packages are in various stages of consternation. Meanwhile, a policeman brownie runs for help. It certainly shows the way Christmas is at our house.

Steinbeg's Santa (on a Hallmark card) is decidedly an elf, but his tree is filled with marvelous abstractions.The Walter's Art Gallery in Baltimore has a card with some of the stranger creatures -- "Venetian Masquerade" from a 16th-century Italian Costume Book. From Long Ago

Holiday Heirloom Classics are reproduced on Hallmark Cards' 19th-century design collection. A copy of an English card shows a children's choir singing "Home Sweet Home," with wishes for a "Bright and Happy Christmas." The new top card has the Thomas Miller sentiment echoed by everyone who has a hard time coping with one Christmas let alone more: "Then let us sing amid our cheer, Old Christmas comes but once a year."

Greens, blues and subtle earthtones, some rather yellowed and faded tints predominate, according to John Dinardo of Hallmark. "The traditional Christmas red is still much in evidence but used more sparingly . . ."

Lord & Taylor has six antique Christmas post cards from 1904 to 1914 in its Christmas Romantics Shop, which includes other Victorian gifts. One Art Nouveau card shows bells and holly hanging from a ribbon.

At the Smithsonian's National Musueum of American History (once the Museum of History and Technology), an exhibition by curator John Hoffman traces the origin of Christmas cards -- Dec. 15 through Jan. 15.

"The year 1843 is generally accepted as the date of the first true Christmas card," says Hoffman. He credits John C. Horsley with making a card for Sir Henry Cole, first director of the Victorian and Albert Museum. Mass publishing began in the early 1860s. Louis Prang brought Christmas cards to America in 1874. But it took cartoonist Thomas Nast to give Santa his ermine-trimmed coat. Santa appears in different guises in some of the cards. In a 1900 card, he's Father Christmas, with a long Russian-style coat. In 1906, he's traveling by motorcar. In 1908, he's on foot in a blizzard with a rather militaristic load of drums, bugles, swords and flags. Downtown

Against the country trend in design comes a new one celebrating Christmas in the city. Cards showing Christmas row houses like the ones you see around here are designed by Barbara Noel Deiso of Davidsonville, Md., on stock suitable for framing. In Washington, they're only available at Garfinckel's.

The city theme, showing that even back then in 1907 they had traffic jams, is strong in the reproduction of a Collier's magazine cover from the Library of Congress. "Lord of the Crossways," an ink-and-watercolor drawing by Edard Penfield, shows a newfangled, chauffer-driven open touring car stopped by a policeman at a busy crosswalk. Hallmark has a splendid card showing a black-and-white city full of Christmas shoppers with one red car with a green tree.

The Social Center has a fine townhouse-and-Christmas-tree scene, as well.

Business as Usual

Business people ar in on the religious trend, sending such cards to their customers this year, according to the National Association of Greeting Card Publishers. Martin Dash, president of the American Artists Group, said, "It has become acceptable to emphasize one's roots and ethnic background . . . many businessmen have grown away from neutral cards."

Dash says the company's artists reflect the preliminary 1980 U.S. Census results showing a move to rural communities, and "the virtues of living closer to nature." He finds businessmen (judging by businesses' imprinted cards) like farm and snow scenes, though a few "still opt for metropolitan vistas and urban drama."

For those businessmen not religiously inclined, the Christmas card makers have published a large selection showing traditional businessmen sports. One of the least offensive shows Santa's golf ball rolling into a giant snowbal while his reindeer caddy looks on with astonishment -- from Hallmark. Photographs

The Library of Congress has perhaps the widest range of cards with true-to-its-place-in-life themes to suit Republican and Democrat, conservative and liveral, modernist and traditionist.

Last year, photographs on Christmas cards began to appear in quantity and they are big again this year. Iif you're a spender from the West, you might want to pay $25 each ($150 for six) for what you may think are super cards: 11-by-14-inch master photographs, made from the original negatives that have been protected by the Library's Prints and Photographs Division, and mounted on acid-free rag mat. "Blessed Art Thou Among Women," a photograph of mother and daughter by Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934), is poignant and appropriate. The two Walker Evens photographs, "Roadside Stand" and "General Store." and John Vachon's "Porch on the Fourth of July" make nostalgia seem real. The Evans photographs are so sharp (especially the calendar with its art-noveau numbers) they almost seem to be three-dimensional.

If your heart's in the right place but your pocketbook is not, the Library offers 11-by-14-inch unframed photographs printed by very good offset lithography; they're just $3 each. The "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange, looking anxiously to the future, is a very touching reminder of the Depression. Trees

Trees, more than flowers or animals, seem the motif from nature this year. The best tree card of them all is Washington artist-architect Ted Naos's die-cut card called "Winter Village" for the Museum of Modern Art. UNICEF has "Trees" cards, black-and-white photographs by Canadian photographer Peter CarrLoche. American Artists Group (Irene Dash Greeting Card Co.) has a black-and-white-and-blue snow scene by Eyvind Earle and a card with handsome stylized trees and a tree-shaped Santa Claus by Stan Brod. A UNICEF card, "Nine Trees," assembles to make a convex ornament. Diversities

The Library of Congress published 45 true Christmas cards this year. "The Tyger," poem and illustration from William Blake's 1794 "Songs of Innocence and Experience, Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul," is awe-inspiring. "Zodiac," from the 1741 "The Georgicks of Virgil," suggests a marvelous heaven of tigers, warriors, winged horses, angels and such.Hardly any painting is as expressive of God the Creator as Blake's wonderful "Ancient of Days" from his 1794 "Europe, a Prophecy."

This year, the Smithsonian Institution has a grand offering by Ted Naos: "Christmas Day," a die-cut card with stars and doves that you can place where you like. They're wonderful to put in windows. Another great cut-out card by Naos is his "Joy," available at several places around town.

The National Gallery also has a pleasant collection of cards from the Index of American Design. A 19th-century cornucopia watercolor by Mabel S. Kelton promises a fruitful feast.

A box of note cards from the Folger Library can be used all year around. Each has Shakespearean sentiments such as, "Butt if the while I think of thee, dear friend, All losses are restored and sorrows end."

The Textile Museum has reproduced an 18th-century prayer rug, an early 17th-century synagogue rug, and a 19th-century Turkish embrroidery on note cards; there are 10 cards to a box.

The Center for Environmental Education (1925 K St. NW) offers embossed notes on heavy paper showing a Breaching Humpback Whale.

Hallmark, American Associated Artists and Recycled cards are widely available in book stores, card shops and department stores. The museum and library cards are available at the gift shops of each institution.

Merry Christmas!