Working, walking, shoveling or shopping, on the job or on holiday at home, Washingtonians conducted themselves yesterday as if they knew they were part of an epic, legendary event -- The Great Snow of 1979.

History was being made on every street corner. Scores of people schussed to work on skis. Protesting farmers mobilized their tractors to push stalled cars out of head-high snowbanks. Spontaneous snow parties blossomed in Adams-Morgan.

It was a day of hardship and helping out, of sledborne hospital meals, grounded planes, stalled trains and lots of long-haul hiking, both as a last resort and for the considerable sheer pleasure of it.

And as the snow and wind subsided and the city warmed up under a brilliant afternoon sun, a kind of snow-mania struck Washingtonians who had no pressing commitments.

Platoons of cheerful, curious and awed pedestrians strolled down the city's major thoroughfares, which, all but devoid of other traffic, seemed to have been transformed into the carless avenues of another era.

Among those who responded to the special summons of the record-setting day was Charles Cushman, manager of the Georgetown Safeway stores.

Cushman left his Rockville home on foot at 3 a.m., and arrived at 8:59, just in time to observe the store's scheduled 9 a.m. opening.

"Business is tremendous," he said.

Finding an open food store was akin to discovering buried treasure. One exultant woman shopper marched through Old Town Alexandria yesterday crying, Paul Revere-style, "The Safeway is open! The Safeway is open!"

It was a day to remember and a day to record, and film went fast at stores that had it. Visitors and residents posed smiling in snowbanks for the cameras of friends and strangers. Near Key Bridge, a middle-aged man handed his camera to a passerby and stood with his back to the city's snow-shrouded skyline.

"They'll never believe this back in California," he said.

From beneath the snowcapped cornices of the Soviet Embassy, three men carrying cameras sallied forth onto the endless whiteness of the 16th Street yesterday morning.

"It's just like Siberia, isn't it?" a whimsical passerby called.

"Yes, it's just like home," one of the Soviets answered.

But one Siberian resident of Washington needed help when he awoke yesterday. Cindy Gottschalk had to dig her Siberian husky, Symphony, out of his dog house before she could begin the mile-long walk to the Carbone Animal Hospital in Clarendon, where she works as a veterinarian's assistant.

Outside the Madison Hotel, a desperate visitor from New York pleaded with a truck driver for a ride to Union Station.

"Name your price," said the man. "I'll pay you up front. If you'll just try, I'll pay you. You don't have to succeed."

The driver stared at the $20 bill thrust before him and finally, without much enthusiasm, agreed to give it a try.

Robin Clark, a retired Immigration Service border patrol chief, got a ride from Lanham to National Airport to catch a 3 p.m. plane to Dallas, where his 86-year-old mother was seriously ill.

After being dropped off, he learned that the airport was closed. Unable to proceed either on to Texas or back to Lanham, he sat quietly in the lobby, trying to decide his next move.

At 1 p.m., near the corner of Jackson Place and H Street NW, two marooned Metrobus drivers were trying to decide their next move. Both had left garages before service was suspended, and now they were stuck in the snow.

"I've been here since before 7 a.m.," grumbled one vexed driver. "I'll be lucky if I'm out by 5 p.m."

At least one stranded bus driver found that immobility had its pleasant side. About 2 1/2 hours after the wheels of Bill Mallory's H2-H4 Metrobus hit the curb in the 4700 block of Yuma Street NW, he was having breakfast and coffee catered by homeowners on the block. The scene became livelier during the afternoon as dozens of neighbors boarded the bus for an impromptu hot wine and cider party.

"This is an awful nice neighborhood," said Mallory. "Most places, they'd just let me sit out here." Food and drink is prohibited on Metrobuses, Mallory acknowledged, "but what could I do?"

At Jim and Angie's Cold Duck Restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, bartender Ed Wholey said the path shoveled to the curb was a very effective advertisement.

"They [the customers] sure as hell came in," Wholey said, to the delight of the assembled patrons. One longtime customer was pressed into service to help handle the crush, which included several firemen who had worked overtime through the night and morning, according to Wholey.

Most of the stores, bars and restaurants that managed to open yesterday were rewarded with booming business. "There's nothing left in there but a few chicken wings," said Maria Drayer at the Townhouse Safeway at 20th and S streets NW.

When jobs had to be done, people made do. A group of Georgetown University students hauled desperately-needed food from campus cafeterias to the university hospital by sled, among other means of transport, according to assistant hospital administrator Steve Horay.

Horay himself was delivered to the hospital from his Arlington home by police wagon.

Rather than use its normal quarters at New Jersey Avenue and N Street NW, D.C. Fire Department ambulance No. 5 took up a post outside the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the snow had been well cleared.

"We can get back in [the firehouse]," said driver John Devine, "but it would take an hour to get back out."

With autos notably absent from the streets, impromptu ski trails were blazed across the snow-covered city. Dr. Thomas O. Stair skied from his Glover Park home to his job at Georgetown University's emergency room, and two staff aides to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) skied to their Capitol Hill offices.

It was a wonderful day for throwing snowballs, and a large group posted at the Dupont Circle overpass seized the occasion to pelt some of the cars passing below.

It was also a wonderful day for shoveling snow. Youths shouldering shovels streamed all day across the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road, and armies of children fanned out through the Capitol Hill area.

"Man, I love the winter," said one. "This is the first time all year I've been able to earn any money." Hammond Fisher, 19, who walked from 19th Street and Florida Avenue NW to relieve beleaguered Georgetown, said he expected to make $200 with his shovel before the snow was gone.

Tread marks of giant tractor tires were stamped deep into the snow on many downtown streets as the protesting farmers prowled the area, looking for good deeds to do.

"They pulled me out of that lot," said motorist Frank Giessner of Colorado, pointing to a snowed-in parking area at New York Avenue and H Street NW. "They backed in and pulled me out," he said. "Really neat."

A squad of farmers served as an emergency transportation corps at Greater Southeast Community Hospital, pulling snowbound cars out of parking lots, bringing doctors and nurses to the hopsital, and taking tired employees home.

"They've been super," said Robert Trefry, the hospital's assistant administrator. "Absolutely fantastic."

Across the area, people surged outdoors, responding to a widespread need to escape the confinement of their homes, to wield shovels, to confront nature, to dig out.

"I don't know where I think I'm going," admitted one shoveler in Arlington as he laid bare his auto, "I just wanted to be outside."

In part, the atmosphere seemed to be a product of the fortunate coincidence of the snowstorm and the Washington's Birthday holiday, which exempted many Washingtonians from the necessity of trying to go to work.

In part it was the view jointly expressed by Randy and Jeff Pope, of McLean, who are 12 and 14, respectively: This "is more snow than we've seen in our whole life," they said.

Not many persons on city streets and roads seemed to share the view of one visitor from Montreal.

"C'est rien," she said.

It may have been "nothing" for a Montrealer, but for Washingtonians, it was history.