Forget the dictates of the ancient Chinese calendar for this year. If one judges by the current and apparently increasing flood of gift items along these lines, it appears as though this really may be the Year of the Cow. The observations of one Washington Post Magazine staffer who vacationed on the West Coast this past summer confirmed the fad: Cows, and other barnyard animals, are immensely popular in trend-setting California.

A perusal of just one local shop turned up potholders with various cow with a serene reclining cow; a cow salt-and-pepper set; a sturdy wood mother cow and her calf, each one on wheels (handcrafted by Dona Dalton, and safe for kids to chew on), and two cow kitchen holders, one featuring pegs for keys and the like, and the other fitted with wood cooking utensils.

And stand by for even more heifer hardware: cow kitchen clocks, dish towel holders and trivets will be arriving soon at The Chocolate Moose, according to its coowner, Barbara Levi. "Flamingos have been in for so long that they're getting to be old hat," says Levi. "Cows are definitely 'it' right now."

Cow butter dish, $16. Cow salt- and-pepper set, $12.50. Mother cow toy, $14. Calf toy, $7. Cow peg holder, $8. Cow holder with wood utensils, $12.50. Cow hot pads, $3 and $3.75. All at the Chocolate Moose, 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW. 362-5111.