It was parade-as-you-go. No crowds lined the sidewalk. Instead, friends and relatives of the marchers strutted in concert along Constitution Avenue, a casual mass that swept gaping tourists and incredulous pedestrians into a brief Columbus Day frenzy.

Washington's first Columbus Day parade in recent memory seemed to catch the city largely by surprise yesterday. Yet good humor prevailed among the Sons of Italy, the Knights of Columbus and the various dancers and banner-carriers who followed troupes of flag-waving, pompon girls and the H.D. Woodson High School, marching band down the avenue.

U.S. Park Police estimated that no more than 300 people were on hand to view the procession.

Nevertheless, the event's organizers said that they were satisfied. These things have to start someplace, they explained, adding that while most parades are planned a year in advance, their preparations had started only in July.

The event marked the 10th anniversary of Columbus Day as a national holiday. In the past, the ceremonies have centered around the Christopher Columbus statue in front of Union Station.

But this year, the leaders of the local Italian-American community decided to have a parade.

As Amelia Hogg of North Springfield put it: "I think it's about time Christopher Columbus got a lot more recognition than he's been getting."

Nineteen Washington-area, Italian-American organizations participated in the affair, under the direction of an umbrella group called Amerito. At around 11 a.m., leaders of those groups and about a hundred onlookers assembled near the statue, where they laid wreaths to honor the explorer and heard praise for Queen Isabella of Spain, who had sent him on his way.

A Knights of Columbus color guard in plumed hats and blue capes stood at attention. A troupe of Spanish dancers twirled and clicked their castanets.

Parents from counties in Maryland, which observe Columbus Day on Oct.12, complained that they could not get their children out of school. Anna Neri, administrator of the Spring Bilingual Montessori Academy in Silver Spring declared, "For me, today is a holiday, even if Maryland says 'no.' "

She brought 15 of her pupils to man one of the floats.

Washington's European ethnic communities dispersed decades ago, making it more difficult, organizers said, to get all of the area's Italians into one place.

And, in a city of transients, there inevitably were comparisons with similar events elsewhere, mixed with nostalgia about the way things used to be.

"Where I came from, in Rochester, N.Y., it was 56 percent Italian," said Jim Tantalo of Oxon Hill. "This is about the closest thing to Italian you'll find in Washington. I very seldom see anything Italian outside the movies, and that's all bad."

"At home in Beaumont, Tex. , the Italian community stuck pretty much together around the church," said Tony McAdoo, a history teacher at Arlington Williamsburg Junior High. "I miss it. It was important to me growing up."

"You always feel something for your country, no matter how far away," said Aldo Giliotti, a Montgomery County mason who emigrated from Parma in 1954. "This is the only way to get close."

Maria Wilmeth, president of Amerito, said that the group plans another parade next year, and a festival near the Washington Monument grounds. She said Amerito is hoping that over the years the parade will draw people of all national origins and become as popular as, say, the St. Patrick's Day parade in the spring.

"It's one celebration that all Americans should have," she said. "For us, it's like the Fourth of July. Without Christopher Columbus, the Fourth of July never would have come."