Winter 1979 jabbed its first icy finger at the Washington area yesterday, pushing temperatures down to the mid-20s.Eye-stinging winds buffeted office workers and Christmas shoppers downtown and triggered scattered power failures from Landover to Lorton.

The sudden cold sent many unprepared Washingtonians scurrying for winter gear ranging form gloves and mufflers to space heaters and car anti-freeze.

"It's been busy . . . all day," said Michael DeSio, an assistant to the buyer for the glove department at Woodward & Lothrop's downtown store.

The cold front broke before dawn with a sudden rush of Arctic winds that snapped three limbs and cut power lines to at least 7,000 homes and businesses in suburban Virginia and an additional 500 in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

The temperature tumbled from 40 degrees to a low of 27 degrees by early morning at National Airport and was even lower elsewhere.

Winds gusting to 47 miles per hour -- gale force -- were clocked at he airport at 3:40 a.m., then tapered off to the 15-to-30-mile-an-hour range after dawn.

During the day, the temperature pushed up only to 34 degrees -- two degrees above freezing -- before plunging toward the teens last night. The National Weather Service called for clear skies today but with temperatures reaching only the mid-to-upper 30s. The normal daytime high for this time of year is about 44 degrees.

The first hard, decisive cold snap of the season set off the usual range of disruptions and discomforts for Washingtonians. In addition to the power failures in the suburbs, 33 apartment buildings in the city reported losing heat, hot water or both, and more than 800 motorists called for help to get their cars started, according to the American Automobile Association.

The Virginia Electric and Power Co. reported that about 7,000 customers -- most of them in the Great Falls-McLean area -- lost power between 1:30 and 3:30 a.m. Most power was restored by 10:30 a.m.

Similarly, the Potomac Electric Power Co. said power to most of about 500 widely scattered customers in Montogomery and Prince George's counties and the District was restored by 5 a.m.

"We didn't have a real bad time of it," said Pepco spokeswoman Dawn Flemming.

William D. Toohey Jr., spokesman for the Washington area American Automobile Association, said an estimated 1,300 AAA members called for assistance yesterday -- substantially more than the 843 who called for help last Monday when the temperature was in the 50s and low 60s.

Of the 1,300 callers yesterday, Toohey said, 60 to 65 percent were "can't-starts," that is, people who could not get their cars started because of the cold or moisture from Sunday's rain..

Thomas Butler, housing inspection chief in the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said the sudden cold generated complaints of lost heat, hot water or both from tenants at 33 apartment buildings and two single family houses in the city -- a 25 to 30 percent increase over last week.

Butler said housing inspectors were sent to most of the building yesterday to determine if the complaints were valid and to issue short-term orders to owners to make repairs if necessary. Butler said the would not know how many of the complaints are valid until later today.

Area store owners reported that yesterday's sudden cold also produced a surge in winter clothing sales.

"They come right in from the street to buy," said Selena Florence, clerk in the scarf and hat department at Woodies downtown. She estimated that two-thirds of the shoppers she helped yesterday were buying hats and mufflers for themselves rather than as Christmas presents for others.

"Today's weather convinced me to come in and buy for myself, " said Woodies shopper Mary Jordan as she searched for a hat and gloves.

Several stores reported both yesterday and in recent weeks that sales of electric space heaters are up -- in some cases dramtically -- over last year.

Thomas Krishner, manager of Murphy's in Alexandria, said sales are up 50 percent, and a manager at Murphy's downtown Washington store at 1214 G. St. NW reported a 75 percent increase.

Forecasters at the National Wether Service say the current cold spell won't last long. Warmer air should start flowing into the area Wednesday with daytime temperatures reaching the low to mid-50s by Thursday and the upper 50s to low 60s by Saturday. Forecasters said fair skies should prevail during the period.