CHRISTMAS holiday travelers flying into San Francisco after dark look down into the city, a jeweler's cache of diamonds, emeralds, and rubies scattered on black velvet. Snugly compact on steep bayside hills, the city dresses up for Christmas and sparkles all over with millions of lights. In the financial district, high-rises are ablaze from top to bottom, right up to the 850-foot top of the Transamerica Pyramid. Their dramatic heights outlined in white lights for the season, Embarcadero Center's glass monoliths are an architect's Christmas Eve dream.
Long, starry December nights on the bay average a crisply cool 48 degrees. Uptown in Union Square, winter winds rustle through the palms and yew trees, draped in strings of tiny twinklers.
Shoppers browse late around Union Square, in the big department stores, Macy's, Saks, I.Magnin, and Neiman-Marcus. The big four engage in what are called the ``window wars'' at Christmastime. Along with Gump's around the corner, they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, trying to outdo each other's spectacular window displays. Skating bears whirl around mirrored ice rinks, choirs sing, elegant live mannequins stand motionless in $10,000 ball gowns, and snowy forest scenes come alive with magical creatures. Neiman-Marcus takes advantage of its soaring atrium lobby by erecting a 60-foot Christmas tree and covering it with glamorous goodies and 32,000 lights.
Down on the waterfront at Ghirardelli Square, a circa-1850 brick chocolate factory transformed into a shopping arcade, month-long festivities begin with an annual tree-lighting ceremony. Kids clamber up and down the winding stairways, wave to Santa, sing carols, munch free chocolates, and watch wide-eyed as the switch is flipped and a 50-foot white fir becomes a glittering tower of light. Children can spend a quieter December evening in Morrison Planetarium at the ``Christmas Star'' presentation, a special sky show and story telling about Bethlehem in the time of Jesus.
When the famous fog rolls in and it's too chilly to be out in the night air, flickering candles and glowing stained-glass windows warm the hearts of concertgoers in Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. The voices of the men's and boy's choirs seem to touch the lofty Gothic heights of this third-largest Episcopal cathedral in the United States.
In lovely old Mission Dolores, believed to be the oldest structure in the city, the Basilica Choir sings hymns and traditional Christmas songs in Spanish, and goose bumps are had by all.
Hundreds of avid and would-be choristers and a full orchestra hold forth under the crystal chandeliers in Davies Symphony Hall each year at a Sing-It-Yourself ``Messiah.'' Seen and heard live on TV, it's one of the most popular holiday events in the city. ``Messiah'' participants who take themselves seriously can limber up their vocal chords at a pre-performance workshop.
Davies Hall is new to the city. Seen from the street at night, it looks like the prow of a luxury liner with acres of wraparound windows. Swirling eddies of glamorously gowned patrons can be seen at intermissions, sipping and strolling about.
At Fisherman's Wharf, gaslights gleam along cozy, crowded streets in a re-creation of Victorian England, the Dickens Christmas Fair. More than 300 authentically costumed players cajole and wheedle delighted fairgoers into sing-alongs at the Victoria and Albert Bijou Music Hall, trinket-buying in the many nook-and-cranny shops reminiscent of Olde England, and kicking up their heels in Mr. Fezziwig's Dance Party.
Down here in the waterfront, the deck of Hornblower Yachts' City of San Francisco is another good vantage point from which to view San Francisco's glittering gift of Christmas lights. Out on the bay aboard the replica turn-of-the-century steamship, passengers enjoy an elegant dinner and entertainment while two of America's famous bridges make their appearances.
Seven months older than the Golden Gate, the Bay Bridge got a 50th birthday present in 1986, temporary globes strung along the bridge from Treasure Island to the Embarcadero. They looked so beautiful that a spontaneous fund-raising effort was begun to buy and install permanent lights. The Bay Bridge now wears a necklace of 860 sparklers at Christmas and all year long. The Golden Gate Bridge got her 50th birthday present, too: huge floodlights to illumine the twin red-orange suspension towers.
Holiday revelers still in town on New Year's Eve can put on their spangles and dancing shoes, bundle up in winter finery, and set off around the city in motorized ``cable car'' shuttles on the third annual First Night, a nonstop, dusk-to-dawn, big-band dance party, jazz fest, and comedy marathon. Some of San Francisco's most popular musicians and performers delight the crowds. Held in dozens of halls and theaters all over the city, the First Night admission price is nominal; food and hot and cold drinks are available; and no alcohol is allowed.
Fireworks will explode over the city in the first moments of 1989; waltzing couples at ``A Night in Old Vienna'' in the Symphony Hall will be engulfed in balloons falling from the ceiling; and strings of lights on 100 crab boats at Fisherman's Wharf will sway silently, reflecting their colors in the dark waters below. If you go
A complete schedule of holiday events and information is available from the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, 900 Market St., San Francisco, CA 94102; telephone: (415) 391-2000.