If you've lost your job or don't like your job, the holiday season may be the best time to go looking for a new one.

That's not the typical job-hunting advice. The typical advice is to lie low for the holidays, then jump into the job market in January, after the music has stopped and the parties are over.The theory seems to be that job applicants are down-on-their-luck types who make the rest of us feel bad by hanging around with painful expressions on their faces.

Besides, it's common knowledge that companies don't do much hiring in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

The truth, according to placement experts, is that executives often are more relaxed and less busy over the holidays and may know of job openings for the upcoming year.

"Job seekers shouldn't think they'll spoil the fun by letting people know they're looking for work," says Sheryl Dawson, who runs a placement firm in Houston. "With a cheerful attitude and a crisp, professional approach, a holiday job seeker has a definite edge over those who wait until after the new year."

Among her suggestions:

- Go to holiday parties. You can make good contacts there. An informal chat over a cup of punch can produce job leads that otherwise might take weeks to uncover.

- Use your Christmas cards to put out job feelers. A note on the card can be an upbeat way to get the word out (and a welcome change from the usual "We're just back from the Bahamas" report).

- If you're going to be traveling, tell employers you'll be in town for a few days and would like to drop in and chat about job openings.

Such tactics may be necessary in a job market that can best be described as slow to terrible. Nationally, the number of jobs fell by 68,000 in October after a decline of 52,000 in September.

The unemployment rate has crept from 5.2 percent to 5.7 percent in the past year, and some forecasters expect it to approach 7 percent before the economy turns up again next summer or fall.

More than half the workers laid off are between the ages of 25 and 44, an indication that baby boomers are beginning to feel the pinch.

More than 75 percent of the job losers were white-collar workers, some drawing high salaries in the managerial and professional ranks.

When Morgan Stanley & Co. decides to lay off 50 investment bankers, about 6 percent of its staff, you can be sure the layoff virus will spread to other Wall Street firms as well.

The job market is so soft that James Challenger, who runs a placement firm in Chicago, is advising applicants to sell themselves as problem-solvers - even if it means offering to work on a solution at home on your own time.

The thing to remember is that not every company, every industry or every section of the country is suffering equally. Jobs may be more plentiful in the Northwest, the industrial Midwest and the farm belt than in the New England states. Texas, once a basket case, is doing better now that oil prices have hit $30 a barrel.