MAYBE IT'S like Fred Astaire and his top hat, black tie and tails in the depths of the '30s depression. Perhaps we're whistling as wellas dancing in the dark. All that glitters is not gold, but at these interest rates you do the best you can.

Anyway, at this time of the year, it's worth reading Christmas cards as though they were Tarot cards, to see what they say about how we're all bearing up under the strain of wars, rumors of wars, high interest rates, high unemployment, spiraling inflation and plummeting personal profits.

Going by the cards, everybody is going on the gold standard. If your card doesn't look like it was printed in Fort Knox, it apparently is small change this year. The look, if not the reality, of opulence is in. The feeling is that if you can't afford to give a golden gift, you can at least send a card that gives the fantasy.

Even Ted Naos, Washington's own less-is-more Christmas card die-cut sculptor, has added silver foil cards (with colored envelopes to go completely giddy) to his pristine, purer-than-thou collection of all-white cards. The cards un-See CARDS, Page 2, Col. 3 CARDS, From Page 1 fold to make a display. As usual, his are the best designs of the season.

It's comforting, nonetheless, to report that his cards are still fine examples of paper sculpture, as much Christmas ornament as cards.

His newest are 5-by-5 inch snow-crystal ornaments, three-dimensional silver foil pieces that come assembled, ready to put on the tree. A variation is a snowflake tree card with interlocking pieces to make it three-dimensional, 5-by-7 inches. These can either stand on a table or windowsill or hang.

His Noel card has a snowflake interlocking with the "O" to become 3-D. In all three cases, the interlocking pieces are in red, green or blue to contrast with the silver foil.

As usual, Naos "Graphicards" are romantic, with his continuing infatuation with hearts in different forms. And this year, a number of unicorns seem to have wandered in, searching for maidens.

As usual, Naos has made cards that are exclusive to the Museum of Modern Art ("Jonathan and His Toys," a white on white), the Smithsonian Institution ("Silver Forest," a silver on white card with a colored envelope) and other museums. The Corcoran Gallery of Art also carries a large Naos selection.

Hallmark, probably the biggest greeter, has the golden touch this year. Contrasting with the gold-leaf look are some definitely art moderne colors, reminiscent of the '20s and '30s' boom and bust. One of its crown cards is coral flowers on a black background over silver, with a matching red envelope lined with gold. A stylized art deco card is designed of three green, gold-edged triangles pretending to be trees on a bright red backgournd. The envelope is green.

A gold bird perches on a silver and gold pear tree on one Hallmark card, while a remarkable tree ornament of green, blue and red metallic squares festoons another.

"Our designers," says John Dinardo of Hallmark, "account for the more sophisticated trend by pointing out that the population is more mature and less child-oriented than in years past. The fine art look is preferred over the more whimsical Christmas designs.

"Also, women, who account for a majority of Christmas card purchases, are working outside the home in record numbers. They want cards that are better suited to their business relationship."

The National Association of Greeting Card Publishers says the average card buyer is 32 years old and buys 60 Christmas cards a year. Today, according to Kathleen M. Felix, who speaks for the association, more people are inclined "to buy individual cards rather than boxes, so they can suit the card to the receiver."

Dinardo notes an increasing use of blues and greens. He says Hallmark's designers use 15 shades of green and 20 shades of red on their 2,000 Christmas designs this year. No wonder the prices, which start at 30 cents a card, go up to $3.75.

"New printing techniques have made these lavish cards possible," said Felix, "and all the publishers seem to be taking advantage of these new methods to make elegant cards. Following design trends in other industries, elegance is in."

Dorothe Whitehead at Garfinckel's, which always carries trendy cards, is another believer in the Midas touch, with Private Papers' trees, moon shining on a flying Santa, and other gold on silver designs. Whitehead has even designed one of her own this year that comes complete with confetti and the greeting "To wish you a year of sugar plums and confetti." But she also points out that gold isn't everything. "Our customers are very sophisticated. They're not interested in the cutesy card. They want something well-designed, good graphics. And most of all, they want to write their own message."

To that end, Garfinckel's is carrying Christmas-decorated note paper as well as correspondence cards and Duncan McIntosh's fold-over letter-envelopes.

As usual, Garfinckel's has some cards especially designed for Washington, such as its sketches of Washington landscapes and monuments by Barbara Noel Deiso of Crofton, Md. This year she's drawn the White House at Christmas.

A few cards come with comments on the year's eventssuch as a card showing Santa trying to land despite the air controllers' strike.

As always, "adult" Christmas cards are available. PPB Designs of Texas is one of the more riotous. Patsy and Pat Bailey (mostly Pat) are the designers. Some are photographs: a Santa in his underwear is getting turned down from a red-stockinged model who has his jacket; another Santa is stretched out in bed showing mostly the back of his blue jeans. The legend says "Hope nothing come between you -- and your happy holiday." On another card, a pregnant Santa is discovered to be wearing a slip. On another card, he poses with his rifle and a mounted head of Rudolph the red-nosed. Yet another of PPB's black-humor cards has a frizzle-headed, winged-glasses, leopard-caped woman standing beside graffiti which reads "Santa Claus . . . Rudolph's Lit Again."

Another trend, according to Kathleen Felix, seems to be a number of peace cards. Even PPB has a nice one that reads, "Pray for the day of peace, my friend, when all the world's soldiers are only toys of tin."

Hallmark finds that religious cards -- Nativity, angels, stained glass, church and peace doves -- may sell as much as 30 percent of all its cards, up almost 10 percent from the late '60s.

Museum and library cards are more varied than most, but they all seem to have at least a few art deco or Depression-era designs this year.

The Library of Congress always has some of the most unusual cards. But this year, like everybody else, it has looked to the '20s for inspiration: a woman seated at a table, wearing her hat and coat, a study for an advertisement by Edward Penfield. As for Victoriana, the Library has a chromolithograph by Louis Prang of Lawn Tennis from an 1886 painting by Henry Sandham, and a Victorian Bank concert, an 1858 illustration from the cover of "The Palace Garden Polka" by Thomas Baker

Less, or perhaps more giddy, is the Library's "The Earth and the Sun" in rotation, by Andreas Cellarius in "Harmonia macrocosmica," an atlas published in 1661.

The National Gallery of Art usually has the widest range of art cards. This year the Henri Matisse "Jazz" card stencils are in high deco colors, some of the most handsome of the season. But they also have Oriental cards, old masters, renderings from the Index of American Design and handsome charcoal sketches.

The Folger Library has cards from Walter Crane's watercolors for "Flowers in Shakespeare's Garden" with, of course, the legend from "As You Like It": "Heigh Ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly." Dante angels, madonnas and children, feasting and Jacobean watercolors are also in the Folger's collection, as well as an unusual number of unicorns.

The Corcoran Gallery is a good place to buy Ted Naos cards. But it has a good collection of with-it cards. Portal Publications from Corte Madera, Calif., looks like '20s ads.

Our friend Pat Bailey pops up again for Paper Moon Graphics of Los Angeles, Calif., with a jukebox fill of Christmas tunes. Kissmas, a flapper painting her lips with a candy cane, is by Peter Palombi for Paper Moon.

Corcoran also has the Pop Shots, a series by Paper Moon; that pop up with angels or dancing girls or even _ surprise! _ Santa Claus.

The Smithsonian shops at Natural History and Air and Space have the largest concentration of cards, according to Jeanette Rivera of the shops. They also carry Christmas postcards and note paper.

Whitehead at Garfinckel's says she expects Christmas postcards to be popular this year because of the increase in postal rates.

Ah, yes; cards in envelopes cost 5 cents more to mail this Christmas than last. Will that cut down on the number of cards?

"People don't mail them to those they see every day anymore" says Whitehead. But Felix, ever the optimist, notes that "Christmas comes but once a year."