At the Pet Farm Park in Vienna yesterday, nearly 300 children had an unequivocal answer to one of humanity's oldest puzzles:

The eggs came first.

For 15 frenzied minutes, the children combed through grass and peered beside fence posts in search of 300 candy-filled eggs. Then -- after the eggs had been recovered and stowed in baskets, prizes bestowed on the finders of 12 gold-colored eggs, and congratulations offered by the Easter Bunny himself -- they took a moment to watch the newborn goats, pet the baby chicks and listen to their parents marvel at the small ways things begin.

Four-year-old Jonathan Rude of Arlington reached one hand toward the baby rabbits. "They're very breakable, aren't they?" he asked his parents. "This is the first time I ever touched a bunny," he added. "They feel soft."

The day-before-Easter egg hunt, one of many area events yesterday, offered a preview of the ceremonies and festivities today, as thousands around the Washington region celebrate the Christian holiday of rebirth. There will be parades, concerts, more egg hunts and an afternoon ringing of the Washington Cathedral bells. In addition, there will be sunrise church services at sites throughout the area, including Arlington Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial and Carter Barron Amphitheater.

The egg hunt marked this season's opening of the Pet Farm Park and a weekend benefit for the Easter Seal Society. The Easter Seal poster child, Billy Joyner of Manassas, snipped the opening day ribbon. Another egg hunt will take place today.

It was the kind of clear, sunny Saturday, with cloudless skies and temperatures that reached 76 degrees by midafternoon, that gave a shot of spring enthusiasm to hundreds of thousands of city dwellers who spent the day outside. The bright weather will continue today, with predicted temperatures in the low 80s.

Moments after the children dashed off yesterday in search of eggs, 7-year-old Robby Steele returned with the first of the coveted 12 -- a hard-boiled egg colored with gold crayon.

"There was a little hole in the ground. I just looked in and I thought it was a bird's egg and then I saw gold and it was the golden egg," said Robby. He and the other golden-egg finders got early Easter baskets and a handshake from rabbit-suited Bobby Lewis, 27.

"Who would like to know how the Easter Bunny dyes all those eggs?" said Joe Goldblatt, master of ceremonies for the day. "Mr. Easter Bunny, how is it possible; how do you do it?"

The Easter Bunny was succinct: "Magic."

Daniel Griswold, 2, of Chantilly, ignored his golden egg and opened his Easter basket in search of a red lollipop. His parents, Dave and Debbie, said their son liked the egg hunt but could have done without the formal congratulations. "I didn't want to give the Easter Bunny a kiss," Daniel explained.

Shauna Reed, 3, poked through her Easter basket, methodically opening each plastic egg to see what was inside, then held up the golden one with a smile. "She spotted them pretty well," said Shauna's mother, Brenda. "She even found one in the fence that I missed."

At hunt's end, the children either rushed up to pet the park's 200 animals or backed nervously away from them -- a choice that seemed to depend on age, temperament and parental coaching.

Heather Willis, 7, fed a zebra from an ice cream cone filled with brown pellets. "Why don't you see if he'll nibble on the cone?" her father asked. Heather held out her hand, and the zebra gulped, swallowing the cone in two quick bites.

There were exotic creatures -- rheas, elands, ostriches, an emu or two -- and the animals who make regular appearances in children's books -- cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens. The animals did all the things forbidden to well-behaved children -- they wandered away from their mothers, ate popcorn off the floor, tried to climb through the fences -- and their young audience laughed in delight.

Two boys collapsed in hysterical giggles at the sight of a llama, who chewed as if its jaw were double-jointed. Geese squawked like automobile horns gone berserk. An animal resembling a beige shag rug wandered by, and a toddler patted it absently, as if it were part of the furniture. The roosters, apparently oblivious to the time of day, crowed often, and the parents snapped camera shutters again and again.