President Reagan yesterday celebrated seven Presidential Medal of Freedom winners as "a group of happy rebels," quoting George Orwell's "blunt and unadorned" definition of freedom: " 'Freedom is the right to say no.' There's something happily rebellious about that."

A luncheon ceremony in the White House honored publisher Walter Annenberg, former West Point and Dartmouth football coach Col. Earl H. (Red) Blaik, World War II and Korean War Gen. Matthew Ridgway, journalist Vermont C. Royster, Dr. Albert Sabin, actress Helen Hayes, and Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).

The Medal of Freedom, given annually, is the nation's highest civilian award. It was created in 1945 by Harry Truman for service to the United States in wartime, but was modified by John F. Kennedy to include the arenas of culture and world peace. Recent recipients, chosen at the president's discretion, have included actor James Cagney, former senator Howard Baker, newsman Walter Cronkite, heart surgeon Denton Cooley and jazz pianist Count Basie.

In presenting the awards yesterday, Reagan read the citations for each.

"Many are admired but few are beloved, and fewer still are both," Reagan read from the citation to Helen Hayes MacArthur, her full married name. "But Helen Hayes is and has been for almost all the years of this century." The award calls her "that rare thing -- a true original."

Ridgway was commander of the 82nd Infantry Division during World War II as it converted to an airborne division, and he played a major role in the D-day invasion of Normandy. "Ridgway helped save D-day. Heroes come when they are needed; great men step forward when courage seems in short supply. World War II was such a time. And there was Ridgway."

Presenting the award to longtime Wall Street Journal columnist Royster, Reagan called him by his full name, "Vermont Connecticut Royster," and Royster shot back, "Did you have to put the middle name in?"

"His common sense exploded the pretentions of 'expert opinion,' and his compelling eloquence warned of the evils of a society loosed from its moorings in faith," Reagan said of Royster, who recently retired from writing his column.

Sabin, an inventor of the vaccine used against poliomyelitis, was cited as numbering "among the most prominent immigrants of our century. From an early age Sabin devoted his life to medicine . . . This medal is awarded to Dr. Sabin on behalf of a proud nation and a grateful world."

Annenberg was named for his "brilliant career in publishing and pioneering the use of television for education purposes" as well as for his "extraordinary diligence" during his tenure as ambassador to Great Britain. "Since returning to private life, Walter Annenberg has devoted himself to the development of higher education and has provided support to countless institutions."

Blaik was called "a soldier of the gridiron" who "led the West Point team he coached into the pages of the history books . . . One of America's great coaches, he brought a winning spirit to his team, honor to his branch of service and pride to his nation."

And Barry Goldwater was called "soldier and statesman" in the citation. "Respected by both ally and adversary, Barry Goldwater's celebrated candor and patriotism have made him an American legend. Hailed as a prophet before his time, selfless in service to his nation . . ."

As Reagan made the presentation to Goldwater, he said, "Here you go, Mr. Conservative."