The 1,000-year-old Crown of St. Stephen - legendary symbol of Hungarian nationhood, religion and culture - was returned to Hungarian soil tonight after 32 years in American custody.

In the closing months of World War II the crown and other sacred relics were whisked out of Hungary and eventually turned over to the American army for safe-keeping. Tonight, the huge silver crace containing the crown jewels was taken off a presidential-style U.S. Air Force jetliner in a food catering container from Hungary's Malev airline.

The crown's arrival seemed appropriate to its bizarre odyssey, which has stretched over 10 centuries. It has been treasured by Hungarians, seized by two invaders, and hidden from several others.

On a bitter, cold, night, with Hungarian and American officials looking on, and a military band playing, a forklift truck lowered the catering container into a blue Hungarian government van for a motorcade trip into the Hungarian capital.

Officially, the sacred relics - returned by the Carter administration despite objections from some American groups who opposed its return to a Communist regime - will remain in American custody overnight. They will be formally turned over to the Hungarian people U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance in a ceremony tomorrow at the Parliament building.

Vance arrives here early tomorrow, but the rest of the U.S. delegation, including several top State Department officials, Sen. Adlai Stevenson (D-Ill.), three congressmen, and a dozen private citizens, including religious and some Hungarian-American group leaders, arrived tonight.

The delegation was met at the airport by U.S. Ambassador Philip M. Kaiser and by Janos Peter, vice president of the Hungarian Parliament, Foreign Minister Frigyen Puja, and about 20 members of Parliament.

Continued U.S. possession of the crown has been a lingering irritant in relations with a post-war Communist Hungary, especially after Soviet tanks crushed a 1956 rebellion and during the many years following that when Jozsef Cardinal Hindszenty lived in asylum in the U.S. embassy here.

In recent years, however, U.S.-Hungarian relations have greatly improved, with Communist Party chief Janos Kadar credited with having established the least repressive and most liberal regime within the Kremlin-dominated Communist bloc in Eastern Europe.

Despite opposition by some anti-Communist groups among the roughly 1 million Hungarian-Americans in the U.S., President Carter in October decided that the time was right to return the crown to the Hungarian people - rather than to the Communist government.

The crown's arrival here comes one week after the Carter visit to Poland, another Communist state with a long pre-World War II tradition of independence.

Both journeys reflect Carter administration efforts to develop a new policy toward Communist Eastern Europe - one which centers on dealing with these countries individually, and not simply through the Kremlin and which also emphasizes their traditions of nationalism.

These popular and emotional forces can perhaps help, as U.S. officials see it, to loosen the binds to the Soviet Union without tampering dangerously with the unquestionable Soviet dominance of these countries.

Furthermore, the return of the crown as U.S. officials view it, would be in danger of losing its enormous significance here if the United States continued to hold it while the older generation here passed away.

According to tradition, the gold and bejeweled crown was given to Hungary's King Stephen on Christmas Day in the year 1000 by Pope Sylvester II for use in the king's coronation and in gratitude for the king's conversion of his country to Catholicism.

Thus, the crown and the silver orb, gold-plated scepter, sword and coronation robe - all of which were returned to Hungary tonight - are also sacred religious relics in a country where some 60 per cent of almost 11 million people are Catholic.