As war protests go, Marcus Dagold's "peace kite" was light and simple as it haltingly took to the sunny skies above the Mall yesterday during the Smithsonian's annual kite festival, one of many events kicking off the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Dagold had added a message to his handmade box kite, writing "Peace" in the colors of the rainbow on each side.

"Now we'll see if it will fly," the Baltimorean said.

Yesterday was a welcome salve after a long, dark winter. But it also came in the middle of a war overseas and heightened terrorist jitters here. A blue and white police helicopter circled over the Mall, and unmarked police cars were tucked discreetly among the trees. The normal background sounds of the city seemed magnified: a distant police siren, the banging of a backhoe.

With so many people on edge, flying a kite in the spring sun or walking among the cherry trees seemed like a good way to relieve the stress.

"It's nice to see so many people, even though we're at war," said Jackie Carey of Laurel, who was strolling on the Mall. "It felt kind of good driving in and seeing everybody." She brought along her sons, Jonathan, 6, and Micah, 2, to reinforce to them the idea that the world is not ending, despite what it may look like on TV. "I want their lives to be as normal as possible."

Nothing is more normal in Washington than the annual blooming of the 3,700 Japanese cherry trees planted around the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. The trees are predicted to reach their peak April 8-14.

"If anything can overshadow war, it is the coming of the cherry blossoms to Washington," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said last night at the festival's opening ceremony at the Kennedy Center.

Many people who ventured downtown said they wanted to show they were not afraid.

"I'm thinking about [war], but I also want to live my life as usual," said Mick McDowell of Herndon, who was wearing a shirt with "USA" over his heart and the Stars and Stripes on his collar. He was assembling a kite for his daughter, Morgan, 1. "I'm not scared," he said.

Still, many others decided to stay home. A kite festival organizer said that in other years as many as 200 people competed. Yesterday there were 80. Even some volunteers apparently took a pass.

"A lot of people didn't want to come to this city at this time," said Karen Burkhardt of Potomac, an event organizer. "I told them they were safer here than in any other place. And it's a gorgeous day. Not much wind, but a gorgeous day."

Others said they half-joked about the dangers of bringing their families to the Mall, the symbolic heart of a wartime capital.

"There was the irony of, 'Oh yeah, let's go have a picnic in Washington, D.C., when there's a war on,' " said Liz Stockwell of Winchester, Va. "But I wouldn't let it stop me."

Marta Drake of Arlington said, "It's a beautiful day and we're glad we're here, but if something did happen, my relatives would be thinking, 'What the heck were you doing down at the Mall?' "

For others, the sun and smiles supplied needed distractions from weightier matters.

"We're taking a break from fighting the warmongers," said Gael Murphy of the District, wearing a button that said, "Code Pink: Women for Peace." "We're feeling very isolated today."

For an ambitious 9-year-old kitemaker on the Mall, safety concerns and talk of the war against Iraq were only so much adult whispering. "I want to win," said Noah Dove of Olney, who was competing for the second year.

To gain points for the kite contest, Noah dressed up as the most famous kite-flier in history, Ben Franklin, complete with a brass-buttoned coat, a tricorn hat and buckles on his black shoes.

Strange as it seems, kites and war have long been associated, said Corey Jensen, a Las Vegas kitemaker and one of the event's emcees.

During the Civil War, kites were used to distribute leaflets encouraging enemy soldiers to surrender, he said. And during World War II, the military used kites for target practice, and downed pilots in the Pacific theater used them to help raise radio antennas. As recently as 2001, kites returned to the air over Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, which had banned them.

But flying kites can serve a higher purpose, Jensen said. "It is a lesson in humility and of balance," he said. "It's a lesson that we're not necessarily in charge."

This year's National Cherry Blossom Festival continues through April 7. Highlights include daily performances on an outdoor stage at the Tidal Basin; events at the Kennedy Center, the National Building Museum and the Children's Museum; the appearance of seven tall ships on the Southwest waterfront; and April 5, a parade and Japanese-style street festival (Sakura Matsuri). More information is at www.washingtonpost.com/cherryblossoms.

Members of the Kodomo Dance Troupe take part in Cherry Blossom Festival opening ceremonies at the Kennedy Center. The day's events included the Smithsonian's annual kite festival on the Mall. The weather was sunny and warm, but a lack of wind bedeviled participants in the Smithsonian Institution's annual kite festival. Monique Romby, 8, of the District launches her kite. Many more people took part in the kite event last year, when the city and the world were less tense.Reika Yanagi of the Kodomo Dance Troupe is surrounded by parasols. The Cherry Blossom Festival opening ceremonies included traditional Japanese entertainment and remarks by Japan's ambassador to the United States.