Long nights and dark days strange stars and hidden sun, fires, feasts and festivals, dances and drink, orgies and offerings -- the winter solstice is a time for sacrifices and ceremonies, celebrations and sanctifications.

Banging on drums, libations and offerings to the gods, gathering of the tribes for comfort and warmth, all of these have been tried over the centuries as ways to encourage the sun to stay his flight into darkness.

Of all the various rituals, feasting has proven the most efficious. And so it is today, from Chanukah to Kwanz to Christmas to New Year's, we gather around to eat our way from the past to the future.

IN NEW YORK, the American Craft Museum and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum have chosen this time of year to consider table manners and matters. The Cooper-Hewitt, with guest curator Bernard Rudofsky, calls its show (through Feb. 22) "Now I Lay Me Down to Eat: A Slute to the Unknown Art of Living." The sub-title on Rudofsky's book (published by Anchor Books/Doubleday) is perhaps more appropriate: "Notes and Footnotes on the Lost Art of Living."

The American Crafts Museum show by Paul Smith (through Jan. 25) is much more explicit if less poetic: "For the Tabletop." The Craft museum also has a catalogue full of delightful pictures of people dining in state. Both books are available at the museums.

Fingers were invented before forks -- a long time before. Today, Miss Manners allows the fingers to feed the mouth only artichokes, asparagus, corn on the cob, bread, bon-bons and potato chips. But the ancients knew better. Probably the first utensils, after the fingers, were natural scoops such as coconut or sea shells with leaves as plates and napkins. All are infinitely preferable today than those plastic forks, spoons and knives that collapse in our laps and crumble in our custard.

Knives were likely the first handmade utensils and, after that, proper spoons. Rudofsky cites as the first illustration of people eating with forks, Hrabanus Maurus' Glossaria of 1023. The Italians, always leaders gastromically, used forks for pasta as early as the 1370s, to the great amazement of travelers.

Queen Elizabeth owned three forks, perhaps suggesting that she had at least two intimates. The church of the period denounced the practice on the theory that the Lord had already given us fork-like appendages attached to our arms. Rudofsky traces the convention of providing the devil with a pitchfork to that early church dictum. The first fork in America, he believes, was owned by Governor Winthrop in 1633.

Silverware was so scarce, not to mention seldom washed, for many centuries that travelers customarily carried their own.

Early on, craftspeople saw tableware as an opportunity to show their prowess. Benveneto Cellini, with his magnificent salt cellars -- especially the one guarded by Poseidon, god of the oceans and thereby salt -- was one of the great practitioners.

In the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition, a drawing of a 19th-century Italian fishfork is in the shape of a mermaid. Just as magnificent, though not as funny, are the contemporary fork, knife and spoon made of a pound of silver in the show.

At the American Crafts Museum, a fish fork and knife by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scots architect, have forms as elongated as his famous chairs. Ghostly openings like eyes peer through the base of the tines and the blade.

Josef Hoffmann, the Viennese architect, we have just learned, actually invented everything before 1914 that we think came from the Bauhaus in 1930. His splendid "Fledermaus Cabaret" service, a 12-piece setting for each place, is worth the trip to the Crafts Museum. The Cooper Hewitt also has a few Hoffman pieces. Sergio Asti's stainless steel by H. E. Lauffer, made in 1976, is chunker and more rounded than Hoffmann's, and consequently less comfortable to hold, but still very handsome. In that same spirit are the bar tools designed by the ubiquitous Lella and Massimo Vignelli for San Lorenzo.

The Cooper Hewitt includes what is probably the most elegant -- in the sense of being both appropriate, and workable -- tableware pattern, the graceful "Queen Anne," often called "Colonial" or, in Austria, "the Englisch muster (pattern). The pattern, because it is so comfortable to hold, well-balanced and graceful (rather anthropomorphic in shape) is still widely produced today in both silver and stainless.

To me American-size tableware is too light and small. We bought our "Englisch muster" utensils in Austria, so consequently they are the normal European size.The soup spoons are the size of American serving spoons, with the forks scaled to match. My mother stubbornly refuses to use either the dinner fork or spoon, sticking with the smaller salad fork. My husband and I feel there's something to insubstantial about the American scaling. And it's true, we're able to out eat my mother at most meals.

It's easy to tell good design from bad in tableware, by the weight. A fork that feels as though it might bend when you sue it to cut your pie is manifestly only good to be fed to the garbage disposal. Another way to judge -- hold the fork in your hand, and see if the tines and the handle will balance each other.

As for cups, Rudofsky denounces handles in his book, writing:

"The silhouette of an Oriental tea bowl is perfectly rounded from every angle, whereas the tea cup in our china cabinet is marred by the handle, a singularly unsightly appendage. To graft an ear onto the cup is an aesthetic blunder. The justification tendered -- that it enables one to pick up a cup too hot to the touch -- merely betrays our lack of common sense, for if the cup is too hot to the finger tips, the liquid is no less so to the lips."

Rudofsky, to be chauvinistic about it, probably is unaware of the difficulties of washing teacups with handles. Handles make cups almost unstorable, certainly not in quantity. They also tend to be knocked off or fall off with great regularity.

The Chinese, who are no doubt much cleverer than we are because they've been thinking about it longer, also have the perfect dish in their pleasant rice bowls. The bowls are designed to be held just under your chin to catch the drips. Considering the distance from food on the table to fork at the mouth, it is remarkable that bodices and ties survive breakfast, much less lunch.

At the Crafts Museum, a 1979 rice bowl set by Marek Cecula of New York has a double notch to hold chopsticks and a larger matching bowl for storage. Mark Linquist's turned splated maple bowl is a lovely classic form, and very beautiful. James Carpenter took the Oriental bowl, almost a wok form, and blew it in crystal for Steuben Glass in 1979. Louis Comfort Tiffany had no preconceived notions about plate and bowl forms, preferring to make eccentric edge pieces, but the gold irridescent color makes it all work.

The salad bowl, with its side edges curved in, was the reason we bought Russel Wright's 1937 dinnerware for Steubenville when we were married at the end of 1949 -- that and the fact that a store near us sold seconds of it. Russel Wright seemed so advanced. Those curving shapes still seem to me to call up the late '40s and '50s.

Wright's ware is almost a definition of "contemporary" -- far softer and more human shaped than the hard-edged modern of the Bauhaus. Sad, to say, those curving edges, on the pitcher, the salad bowl and the beanpot were almost impossible to clean. Unfortunately, the Wright pieces would craze and chip if you looked at them sideways. Even so, the shapes were beautiful if not workable, and far more handsome than Fiestaware, now more sought after.

Ada Louise Huxtable has rightly spoken of her distaste for the chartreuse color of the Wright dinnerware. But I wonder if she remembers the other colors it came in: a sticky pink, a decaying grey and another color that time has mercifully removed from my memory. Fiestaware's colors were better, especially the red, but the thought of using them all at one table upsets me no end.

The Vignellis again are represented by a melamine dinner set called "Kyoto." The forms are handsome, but I've never had good luck with melamine. Our current everyday china is a pleasant white set in sensible shapes called "Centura," once made by Corning. Like all good things, this pattern has been discontinued. But working on the advice of a British Colonial Service wife, I'll replace what's broken with another plain white, unpatterned china.

For some reason, some of the handmade pottery in the Crafts Museum show is really rather unpleasant looking, especially the funky pieces, which were once called kitsch.As I've said before, in reviews of the Berlin and American porcelain shows here in Washington, there's no excuse for junk. I do not want to drink tea poured from a pot with a German shepherd's head on top, nor from a cup with animal shapes on the bottom. Nor do I want to look at such grotesqueries on my shelves.

While, as Rudofsky points out, the perfect chair has never been invented, the perfect glass may well have been. At the Cooper-Hewitt, two classic white wine glasses by Baccarat are displayed. At the Crafts Museum, there's Josef Hoffmann's exquisite designs with the unbelievably thin stems. Steven Maslach's Greenbrae goblets are pleasant and Steven V. Correia's threaded and hooked patterned tumblers are dramatic.

Several of these pieces were used by Rosalynn Carter when she used settings by American artist-craftsmen at one of her first official luncheons, a great boon to the crafts. Joan Mondale went on to commission services for the vice president's residence. I hope Barbara Bush will take good care of them.

Pitchers and teapots should be matters of grave concern in all proper households. In the Crafts Museum show are some of the best. We use Arne Jacobsen's stainless steel "Cylinda Line" teapot every day and find it a joy. It cleans easily (as easy as anything touched by tannic acid) and unlike pottery pots, the spout doesn't break off every Monday.

I'm not as fond of Henning Koppel's pitcher of hand-raised and sculptured sterling silver. It always looks like a pregnant duck, though the handle's graceful. The TAC teapot by Walter Gropius-Louis A. McMillan for Rosenthal Studio-Linie (who sponsored the Craft Museum show) is a very handsome piece. I'm not sure I would be able to hold it with one hand if it were full of tea, but I wouldn't mind looking when someone else poured. Wilhelm Wagenfeld's 1932 clear, heat-resistant "Jena" glass teapot has a practical cylinder to hold tea, so the used leaves are easy to dump.

Today, as evidenced by both exhibits, beautiful objects for the table are still being made, if you look for them, and are willing to take care of them.

The moral to these shows seems clear enough to me: Better a crystal goblet of water than a paper cup of champagne.