The time of the message is now on the land. Words float from house to house through the holiday, mixed with scents of bayberry, pumpkin and myrrh. And as the envelopes reveal their greetings, we search for portents, revelations, predictions for the year to come.

Greeting card artists need to be oracles, for many work two years ahead. Who knew then that the candles of the holidays might be dimmed by the flames of war? Still, it is good to report that doves flutter across many cards and the word "peace" is often inscribed. Hallmark, the largest of the card companies, one year sent only a single dove to be the messenger of peace. Last year, it offered 50 peace cards and this year eight more.

Of course UNICEF, whose cards are sold "for the Well-Being of the World's Children," has more than one dove, including that by artist Shui-Fong Chung bringing "Season's Greetings" in five languages. Some cards keep their sentiments inside. A gilded Caspari card of a snow maiden sleighing with prancing horses says "Peace and Joy" when opened. These and other cards described below are available in museum and card shops.

Mother and Child The image of the mother and baby is a happy reminder that hope of eternal life and everlasting forgiveness was born in a stable. The most charming cards show the worship of even the beasts for the baby. Perhaps the best is a peaceable-kingdom manger with peacocks, a bull and horses, adoring a very gracious baby. The tempera-on-wood "Adoration of the Magi" by Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi is on a card by the National Gallery of Art. The gallery's card collection of old masters also shows Mary and the baby Jesus worshiped by angels and wise men, portrayed in oil-on-wood paintings by Hans Memling, Perugino and Juan de Flandes in the 15th century. One of the U.S. Postal Service's two Christmas stamps this year also comes from a National Gallery work, the sharp-imaged painting by Antonello da Messina, circa 1475.

UNICEF has a fine card, using the National Gallery's Small Cowper Madonna by Raphael, circa 1505. A rare 1899 platinum print photograph called "The Manger," by Gertrude Kasebier, is all the more poignant for its rough setting and ethereal figures. The card is from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where you can also find Elisabetta Sirani, a 17th-century Italian artist, who painted the very real and loving pair of "Virgin and Child."

Heavenly Bodies This year, when the help of the heavenly hosts may be needed more than in most, several cards offer at least a paper promise of protection: An angel of color playing a highly ornamented harp in a painting by Walter Lee for L'Image Graphics benefits the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund. Hallmark's "Angel Chorus" by Robert Allan Haas is a soloist, a supine beauty wearing a gown strewed with golden flowers and carried on the air by huge wings, flowing like a cloak in the wind. And from local architect Ted Naos comes a trio of heralding angels on a clear folding stand.

The satisfying star shape, five- or six-pointed, promises the skies to earth-bound mortals. "Night Stars," a folding cutout on dark blue paper by Roxanne Slimak for the Museum of Modern Art, lures you to the beyond. Ted Naos's interlocking die-cut stars make a round ornament to dangle from a tree.

Art Forms Very few cards are themselves original art objects. In that rare company are the die-cut cards by architect Ted Naos and his own household of helpers. The danger is that the cards are too wonderful to give away (buy two sets). This is especially true of Naos's latest, a mobile more sculpture than card. The three-dimensional work (commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago) is a universe of white stars with the red and green message "Merry Christmas."

The trees and landscapes Pierre Bonnard painted are made into note cards from the Phillips Collection. They have no printed message so they can be used all through the winter.

Famed children's author and illustrator Maurice Sendak's "Some Swell Tree" card from the Museum of Modern Art shows a wild-thing monster being transformed by bells and boughs into some swell tree.

Hitting the Funny Bone Laughter for the holidays is in the best Ho! Ho! tradition. Still, the important rule to observe is to match the humor with the receiver. Some, for instance, might think Andrews and McMeel's "The Far Side" cards by Gary Larson go too Far. A dog visits another and greets her: "Oh, Ginger -- you look absolutely stunning ... and whatever you rolled in sure does stink."

InnoVisions, a company that calls itself purveyor of "Greetings for the Truly Deranged," proves the truth of its advertising by desecrating a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh with a Santa cap and enclosing an eraser shaped like a detached ear with the message, "All my love, Vincent."

The best and worst seem to be pun-flavored: For instance a lobster called Santa Claws with the message "Hope your holidays are all they're cracked up to be," and a Legal Claus with law book and wig, both designed by Leslie Richmond for Recycled Paper Products. Rolls of Rappin' Paper are doing their number on a card by Brace from Hallmark's Shoebox Greetings division.

One Oatmeal Studios card to send to your politically conscious friends shows the White House with wreath, flag and Christmas lights entwined around the columns on the portico and the shrubbery. The legend on the front is: "The Bushes wish you a Merry Christmas." You guessed it -- inside is a sketch by H. Lehrer of the scene with each of the evergreen bushes saying "Merry Christmas."

"All About Christmas Eve" (from Noble Works) portrays Bette Davis in a sleigh saying, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's gonna be a bumpy Christmas." On the inside: "Merry Christmas You Bette Watch Out!" Scrooge, a long-faced individual from Beard & McKie Well Defined Greeting Cards, carries his own definition: "(skrooj), n: 1. individual whose attitude towards Christmas the day before the holiday is the same as everyone else's the day after."

He's Got the Whole World The handsomest cards with people of color are those made by L'Image Graphics of Culver City, Calif. Among them are "Holiday Celebration" by Garry Tosti, a stylish dance in the art moderne mode; a dark "Snow Queen" in a sleigh pulled by polar bears, by Pearl Beach; Egyptian harvesters, by Mary Yanish; and a vamp dispensing stars from the dark of the moon, by Malinda Cowles Wright.

Greetings for Kwanzaa, the holiday from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 that celebrates African American heritage and culture, are carried on a handsome design with African themes and colors by Jesse Randall for Let Something Good Be Said Inc.

Happy Hanukah Hanukah cards are generally lighted with menorahs and the Star of David. The current crop, however, has some interesting variations. "Expect a Miracle," a woodcut by Loren Bloom depicting Jehovah parting the Red Sea, is published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Oatmeal Studios presents one imaginative menorah formed by a stacked row of children and a six-pointed star formed by a ring-around-the-rosy play group. The rich Hanukah card of Caspari -- a menorah in a window, vines and stars on the border -- conceals its golden glitter, but turn it the right way and it shines.

Nostalgia Mount Vernon, in the custom of the 18th century, celebrated the New Year with more verve than Christmas. So "The Washingtons at Mount Vernon, circa 1787," from an oil on canvas by Northern Virginia folk artist Millie Bennett, shows no decoration but brisk outdoor activities. Photographs by Lelia G. Hendren, also for Starwood Publishing Inc., cover the sights and sites as well.

California Mission style -- furniture, lamps, Indian art and rugs, even a player piano -- lives on a card from a fine watercolor by the fabled Perkins Harnley in the National Gallery of Arts wonderful Index of American Design. Buy two, frame one.

A Mansard-roofed Victorian boasts an abundance of chimneys, puzzling Santa on a card by Brian Day, appropriately for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Also from the National Trust, a die-cut wraparound-design card of an antique dolls' house from the Washington Dolls' House & Toy Museum.

An unusual Victorian card from Hallmark's historical collection shows a house in a snowy scene -- but only when it is held up to the light do you see the carolers.

"The Torn Christmas Stocking" is down at its heel but overflowing at the top with all a child could desire. The circa-1882 advertisement for Sam M. Lederer's "Popular Down Town Store" in New York comes from the collection of the National Museum of American History.

A Victorian Saint Nicholas with a silver tree in his pack, an "ornamental paper scrap," comes from Hallmark. A card with a neat drawing of Santa in a sleigh by Cassie, a young patient at the University of Texas's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, benefits the Children's Christmas Card project for the center, 1515 Holcombe Blvd., Houston, Tex. 77030.