THE children of Ethiopia have become part of the creche scene this Christmas. As always in December, well-nourished shoppers, looking like a Currier and Ives print in their scarfs and stocking caps, stroll through department stores where Muzak urges them to dream of a white Christmas. But at one lavishly stocked counter or another, the mind goes back to the hot wasteland of Africa.
We live in two worlds.
Christmas, more so even than Thanksgiving, groans with the luscious burden of food, as if the first and last celebration of life were eating.
A newspaper ad, headlined ''American Christmas,'' lists as gift possibilities a lemonade pitcher, a soup tureen, a cheese board, a pots de creme tray. Pottery with a cherry motif seems to feature food on food.
Recipes, like sugarplums, dance in our heads. Everywhere you look there are formulas for eggnog so thick it stands in the spoon, and instructions for pastries so rich and creamy the mouth waters just to read the ingredients. What should one eat for Christmas dinner? Cornish hen with cranberries? Duck in orange sauce?
Decisions! Decisions! In between these decisions, we look at those scenes from the nightly newscasts and those stark pictorial spreads in our newspaper, requiring only the words: ''Ethiopia starves.''
At the season when carols sing of goodwill toward mankind, the children of Ethiopia cling to our conscience and won't let go. Their eyes staring into all the cameras make our shopping lists less than urgent - to say the least! - not to mention the statistics of retailers giving regular projections on whether this will be a fat Christmas for the record books. We are all caught out in a contradiction that goes to the heart of what that ad calls the ''American Christmas.''
With embarrassing symbolism, a morning television program segues from a photo essay on the children of Ethiopia - looking like babes deprived of their madonnas - to a feature on how we viewers can lose the seven pounds we gain every winter, thanks partly to holiday feasting. Smiling models, attached to stationary bicycles and rowing machines, illustrate how one can burn away one pound of fat by 4.9 hours of cycling or 2.4 hours of rowing. A physician comes on camera to explain cheerfully that all it takes to work off surplus food is ''motivation.''
And what about ''motivation'' to feed the children of Ethiopia? If we can't keep our minds on the meaning of Christmas through our gift-buying spree, how can we keep our minds on this remote country, a hemisphere of oceans and continents away.
We are onto ourselves and our short attention span. We remember how we forgot Biafra and Bangladesh. And so a terrible phrase has been coined for the absenting heart: ''compassion fatigue.'' Will we suffer ''compassion fatigue'' over Ethiopia, as we sometimes suffer ''compassion fatigue'' over Christmas?
Neither disaster has to be. The response, so far, to the children of Ethiopia is nothing to be ashamed of. A generosity of heart, as well as pocketbook, has been conspicuous. Attention is being directed toward long-term solutions. The truism that ''nobody can do enough'' has not driven us into the emotional excesses that can reduce even philanthropy to a fad.
It is as if we are making this a test to prove to ourselves that we need not be typecast either as soulless materialists or bleeding hearts. Perhaps we have had enough of choosing between guilt trips and the defiant posture of ''me first.''
Such steadfastness is a favorable sign. The Christmas mood ought to be calm and unifying, bringing together wise men and shepherds and kings for a celebration requiring staying power as much as intensity. In a different way, the children of Ethiopia are bringing strangers together in a common humanity, raising people out of their preoccupations, as Christmas ideally does - stripping history down to its essentials.
History, it seems, is not billions of dollars of nuclear warheads and human beings everywhere competing for power and wealth against other human beings. History is one child in Ethiopia filled with a primal hunger to live that goes beyond bread.
If we philanthropists of Christmas '84 are shocked into seeing that, the children of Ethiopia will have given us far more than we can ever give them.