At precisely 1 p.m., Colonial-garbed militiamen fired a cannon at Queen and Royal streets in Old Town Alexandria, signaling the opening of festivities. A burst of blue smoke filled the air, children scattered, and the rain started.

But parade-watchers stood their ground for what many described as a particularly meaningful celebration of George Washington's birth. Many said they felt a surge of patriotism related to the sacrifices of America's fighting men and women in the Persian Gulf.

"This is different" than holiday parades in recent years, said Old Town resident Jordan Price, one of thousands of people waving flags. "It does sort of crystallize your feelings of patriotism" to cheer on uniformed marchers while U.S. and allied forces battle Iraqis.

Cradling an American flag and coffee cup at curbside on St. Asaph Street, Price added, "This is clearly the first parade I've been involved in that I've felt this way."

At nearby Mount Vernon yesterday morning, a wreath was placed at Washington's tomb, 259 years after the birth of America's first commander-in-chief. More than 7,000 people had passed through the Fairfax County mansion's gates by midafternoon, a spokesman said.

In Stafford County, nearly 40 miles to the south, ceremonies were held Saturday at Ferry Farm, where Washington lived from age 6 until he assumed management of Mount Vernon at age 20.

About 2,000 people attended the Ferry Farm event, which was "remarkable considering the weather," said Robert Siegrist, the farm's executive director.

As usual, George Washington, Alexandria's hometown hero, virtually eclipsed Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday also was part of yesterday's federal Presidents Day holiday.

Many who endured yesterday's cool, gray drizzle said they had not previously found much of an opportunity to demonstrate their support for the war effort publicly.

They came out on the streets of Alexandria to support the troops, to honor the first U.S. president, to enjoy the parade -- "a little bit of everything," said 8-year-old Patrick Morrison, of the Mount Vernon area. Patrick was camped out with his father, Brem, across from Gadsby's Tavern, American flags and McDonald's hamburgers in hand.

Arlingtonian Audrey Gladmon, sporting a red, white and blue sash, passed out leaflets extolling the virtues of the flag. Nearby, Alexandrian Forrest Waller tipped his hat every time a marcher carried Old Glory past his spot on Royal Street.

The parade "has greater meaning this year," Waller said. "This morning, everybody got up and said their prayers" before turning out for the festivities. "This is probably the largest crowd they've ever had, and I've lived here for a quarter of a century."

The Alexandria parade featured floats, marching bands, military units, battle reenactment groups, scouts, horses, antique cars and bagpipes along a route that wended through historic Old Town.

It culminated weeks of activities, including a 10-kilometer race, a Revolutionary War encampment and skirmish, a cherry pie bakeoff and the city's traditional Birthnight Banquet and Ball.

The banquet event featured a speech by Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Prince William County resident Barbara Lancaster, who was selling plastic flags at $2 a pop yesterday, said she was having trouble finding cloth ones to sell.